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After Syria strikes, time to renew diplomacy

building rubble in Damascus
Wreckage of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) compound north of Damascus, a target of the missile strikes. Photo: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

In response to the recent chlorine bomb attacks in Douma, President Trump ordered missile strikes on three facilities used by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime to produce and store chemical weapons. Rather than destroy Syria’s extensive chemical weapons infrastructure, Trump sought to demonstrate international resolve and deter future use.

Yes, but: These were limited and surgical strikes at the insistence of cautious Pentagon planners, including Defense Secretary James Mattis. Strikes did not target Assad’s broader war-making capability or seek to advance the goal of regime change. They also avoided Russian and Iranian casualties, which could have escalated the conflict.

What's next: The U.S. and its allies will hit more targets with greater firepower if Assad uses chemical weapons again, but it is still unclear whether the strikes were an impulsive response or part of a larger strategy to end Syria’s civil war.

The bottom line: The Trump administration should renew its diplomacy, backed by a credible threat of force. Secretary of State designate Mike Pompeo can engage Russia, Iran and Turkey in U.S.–led mediation through a “contact group” of stakeholders that complements UN efforts. Syria's grinding civil war will continue without greater U.S. engagement.

David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University and a former senior adviser to both the UN Secretariat and the U.S. Department of State.

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