A Non-Signal to Syria

Why the Strike May Not Shape Assad's Behavior

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, April 2017.  SANA / HANDOUT VIA REUTERS

On April 4, Syrian government forces launched a chemical weapons attack against the town of Khan Shaykhun, killing dozens of people, including several children. Two days later, the United States struck the Syrian government’s Shayrat airfield with cruise missiles, killing at least seven people and destroying a number of Syrian warplanes. Soon after the strike, U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham released a joint statement praising President Donald Trump’s decision to “sen[d] an important message” to the Syrian regime—a sentiment that many other observers have since echoed.

But what message, exactly, did the strikes send? Many of the attack’s proponents have argued that it will show Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that the United States will punish his government if it uses chemical weapons again, and that this will deter it from choosing to do so. In fact, the strike’s message was ambiguous—and so it is misguided to assume that the attack will shape Assad’s behavior.

A civil defense member breathing through an oxygen mask after the gas attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria, April 2017.
A civil defense member breathing through an oxygen mask after the gas attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria, April 2017. Ammar Abdullah / REUTERS


There are three main ways that Assad might have interpreted the U.S. strike. In the first scenario, Assad takes the attack as a signal that the United States is serious about its commitment to using additional force in response to chemical weapons attacks. If this is how Assad views the strike, then the Syrian president would probably keep his forces from using chemical weapons again out of fear of U.S. retaliation. From the point of view of the United States, this is the most optimistic scenario, and the one that offers the most bang for the buck: a shift in Assad’s behavior in exchange for only 59 Tomahawk missiles.

In the second scenario, Assad sees the strike as a signal that the United States doesn’t much care about his regime’s use of chemical weapons. In response to an act that governments around

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