The sanctions, coming shortly after U.S.-led airstrikes against facilities linked to Syria’s chemical weapons, are meant to signal that the United States holds responsible not just the government of President Bashar Assad but also his patrons in Russia and Iran.
President Donald Trump has vowed that Syria’s allies will pay a “big price” for facilitating the suspected use of poison gas.
But it remained unclear how far Trump would go in trying to shape events in Syria, which has been racked by civil war for seven years. President Emmanuel Macron of France, who along with Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain joined in the strike on Syrian targets, said Sunday night that he had persuaded Trump to keep a small U.S. ground force in Syria despite the president’s public declaration that he wanted to get out.
“We convinced him it was necessary to stay,” Macron said in a televised interview with French journalists. “I assure you, we have convinced him that it is necessary to stay for the long term.”
U.S. officials, however, disputed that, saying that Macron misinterpreted the conversation. About 2,000 U.S. troops are in Syria to fight the Islamic State, sometimes called ISIS, not to play a role in the civil war. In public comments before the chemical attack that prompted him to launch airstrikes, Trump said he wanted to pull them out right away. Advisers urged him to hold off, and he gave them five to six months to complete a withdrawal.
“The U.S. mission has not changed — the president has been clear that he wants U.S. forces to come home as quickly as possible,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in a statement Sunday night. “We are determined to completely crush ISIS and create the conditions that will prevent its return. In addition, we expect our regional allies and partners to take greater responsibility both militarily and financially for securing the region.”
The new U.S. sanctions were announced Sunday by Nikki R. Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the administration’s leading public voice excoriating Russia in recent days. “They will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons use,” she said on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “And so I think everyone is going to feel it at this point. I think everyone knows that we sent a strong message, and our hope is that they listen to it.”
Trump has tried through most of his presidency to forge a friendship with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and has largely avoided criticizing him personally even as a special counsel, Robert Mueller, investigated whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 election. But in recent weeks, his administration has taken increasing action against Russia, and the president singled out Putin over Syria’s use of chemical weapons on Twitter and again in a televised speech Friday night.
New sanctions Monday would be the third round enacted by the Trump administration against Russia in the past four weeks. Last month, the administration targeted Russian companies and individuals for intervening in the 2016 election and mounting cyberattacks against Western facilities. It followed that this month with penalties against Putin’s inner circle, singling out some of Russia’s richest men and top government officials.
The administration also expelled 60 Russian diplomats and intelligence officers and closed the Russian Consulate in Seattle in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy living in Britain. Russia responded by expelling 60 U.S. diplomats and closing the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg.
Putin spoke with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran on Sunday to discuss the confrontation in Syria and reaffirm his opposition to the airstrike by U.S., British and French forces. “Vladimir Putin, in particular, stressed that if such actions, carried out in violation of the U.N. Charter, continue, it will inevitably lead to chaos in international relations,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
The United States’ allies in Britain and France declared that they were prepared to act again if necessary, but made clear that they did not want to become further involved in Syria. “The rest of the Syrian war must proceed as it will,” Boris Johnson, Britain’s foreign secretary, said on the BBC, adding that the “primary purpose is to say no to the use of barbaric chemical weapons.”
International inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were in Syria on Sunday to start an investigation of the suspected chemical attack that killed dozens of people in the Damascus suburb of Douma on April 7 and prompted the U.S.-led retaliatory strike. U.S. officials have said video and other evidence points to the use of both chlorine and sarin gas by the Syrian government. Russia has asserted that the attack was fabricated to justify military action by the West.
The strikes against Syria were designed to avoid provoking Russia into a response. By hitting just three targets and limiting the attack to a single night, the Trump administration seemed to avoid compelling Moscow to lash back.
But Haley said the administration was determined to make Moscow pay a price for supporting Assad, noting that it had vetoed six U.N. resolutions related to Syria and chemical weapons.
“Assad knew that Russia had its back,” she said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Assad knew that Russia would cover for him at the United Nations, and Assad got reckless and he used it in a way that was far more aggressive.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment Sunday. The Treasury Department, which Haley said would issue the sanctions, declined to elaborate.
Trump sought Sunday to defend his use of “mission accomplished” to characterize the Syria strike, a phrase that evoked memories of President George W. Bush’s visit to an aircraft carrier during the Iraq War that became a symbol of premature victory.
“The Syrian raid was so perfectly carried out, with such precision, that the only way the Fake News Media could demean was by my use of the term ‘Mission Accomplished,’” Trump wrote on Twitter. “I knew they would seize on this but felt it is such a great Military term, it should be brought back. Use often!”
Advisers said Trump meant only that the specific mission of hitting three targets in Syria had been carried out, not that the larger goal of thwarting Assad’s use of chemical weapons had been met. U.S. officials have acknowledged that the strikes did not eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons capability but expressed confidence that they diminished them and hoped that they would deter Assad from using them again.
The phrase “mission accomplished” has been freighted since 2003 when Bush visited the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln after the fall of Saddam Hussein and declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq while appearing before a giant banner emblazoned with the words. Bush himself never used the phrase, and White House aides later said it was meant to congratulate the carrier crew as it returned home from a long mission, but it became a damaging symbol for Bush as the war raged on for years.
Critics said Trump was going too far in claiming success. “It is impossible to say at this point that the mission has been accomplished,” Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said on “State of the Union” on CNN. The operation was accomplished “with the precision that our military is capable of,” he added, “but saying that it has been a success, we won’t know until we see whether the regime continues to use chemical weapons.”
Other lawmakers focused on Trump’s decision to use force without consulting Congress, an issue that has flared under presidents of both parties for decades.
“President Trump is not a king,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said on “Face the Nation.” “He’s a president. He’s supposed to come to Congress to seek permission to initiate a war. As Ambassador Haley said, they’ve been following these chemical weapons attacks for months. They clearly had time to come to Congress to seek our permission.”
Still, supporters of Trump and even some longtime detractors praised him for taking action against the use of chemical weapons without escalating so much that it might draw the United States deeper into Syria’s civil war or provoke a dangerous retaliation.
“I think this administration’s actions against Syria were appropriate,” John O. Brennan, who was CIA director under President Barack Obama, said on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “And I tend to be a critic of this administration. But I think the way they handled this was exactly right.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.