On April 6, United States President Donald Trump authorized an early morning Tomahawk missile strike on Shayrat Air Base in central Syria in retaliation for what he said was a deadly nerve agent attack carried out by the Syrian government two days earlier in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun. Trump issued the order despite having been warned by the U.S. intelligence community that it had found no evidence that the Syrians had used a chemical weapon.
The available intelligence made clear that the Syrians had targeted a jihadist meeting site on April 4 using a Russian-supplied guided bomb equipped with conventional explosives. Details of the attack, including information on its so-called high-value targets, had been provided by the Russians days in advance to American and allied military officials in Doha, whose mission is to coordinate all U.S., allied, Syrian and Russian Air Force operations in the region.
Some American military and intelligence officials were especially distressed by the president’s determination to ignore the evidence. “None of this makes any sense,” one officer told colleagues upon learning of the decision to bomb. “We KNOW that there was no chemical attack … the Russians are furious. Claiming we have the real intel and know the truth … I guess it didn’t matter whether we elected Clinton or Trump.“
Within hours of the April 4 bombing, the world’s media was saturated with photographs and videos from Khan Sheikhoun. Pictures of dead and dying victims, allegedly suffering from the symptoms of nerve gas poisoning, were uploaded to social media by local activists, including the White Helmets, a first responder group known for its close association with the Syrian opposition.
The provenance of the photos was not clear and no international observers have yet inspected the site, but the immediate popular assumption worldwide was that this was a deliberate use of the nerve agent sarin, authorized by President Bashar Assad of Syria. Trump endorsed that assumption by issuing a statement within hours of the attack, describing Assad’s “heinous actions” as being a consequence of the Obama administration’s “weakness and irresolution” in addressing what he said was Syria’s past use of chemical weapons.
To the dismay of many senior members of his national security team, Trump could not be swayed over the next 48 hours of intense briefings and decision-making. In a series of interviews, I learned of the total disconnect between the president and many of his military advisers and intelligence officials, as well as officers on the ground in the region who had an entirely different understanding of the nature of Syria’s attack on Khan Sheikhoun. I was provided with evidence of that disconnect, in the form of transcripts of real-time communications, immediately following the Syrian attack on April 4. In an important pre-strike process known as deconfliction, U.S. and Russian officers routinely supply one another with advance details of planned flight paths and target coordinates, to ensure that there is no risk of collision or accidental encounter (the Russians speak on behalf of the Syrian military). This information is supplied daily to the American AWACS surveillance planes that monitor the flights once airborne. Deconfliction’s success and importance can be measured by the fact that there has yet to be one collision, or even a near miss, among the high-powered supersonic American, Allied, Russian and Syrian fighter bombers.