Did Putin Get the Message?

The primary addressee of the U.S. missile strike on Syrian airfield wasn’t Assad, but Russia.

After the Trump administration’s strike on the Shayrat airfield Thursday, lawmakers, analysts, and the press are asking if the White House has a next move. Certainly it was important to signal that the use of chemical weapons is something the United States could not tolerate. As President Trump explained Thursday, it is a “vital national security of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

That is, the Trump administration enforced the redline against the use of chemical weapons that the previous White House ignored. Further, by citing the possible “spread” of those unconventional arms, Trump was alluding to the organization that is the likeliest recipient of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal—Hezbollah, Iran’s praetorian guard in the eastern Mediterranean.

Thus the strike underscored that the Trump administration’s understanding of the Syrian conflict is broader than that of its predecessor. Where the Obama White House limited its focus in the Syrian arena to an anti-ISIS campaign, Trump struck a blow against the Iranian axis. Tehran and its allies are no longer dealing with an American president eager to strike a bargain with them. The new White House has put Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad on notice. However, the 59 tomahawk missiles launched at Shayrat is perhaps best understood as a message to Russia.

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