WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Saturday declared “Mission Accomplished” for a U.S.-led allied missile attack on Syria’s chemical weapons program, but the Pentagon said the pummeling of three chemical-related facilities left enough others intact to enable the Assad government to use banned weapons against civilians if it chooses.
“A perfectly executed strike,” Trump tweeted after U.S., French and British warplanes and ships launched more than 100 missiles nearly unopposed by Syrian air defenses. “Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”
His choice of words recalled a similar claim associated with President George W. Bush following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Bush addressed sailors aboard a Navy ship in May 2003 alongside a “Mission Accomplished” banner, just weeks before it became apparent that Iraqis had organized an insurgency that tied down U.S. forces for years.
The nighttime Syria assault was carefully limited to minimize civilian casualties and avoid direct conflict with Syria’s key ally, Russia, but confusion arose over the extent to which Washington warned Moscow in advance. The Pentagon said it gave no explicit warning. The U.S. ambassador in Moscow, John Huntsman, said in a video, “Before we took action, the United States communicated with” Russia to “reduce the danger of any Russian or civilian casualties.”
Dana W. White, the chief Pentagon spokeswoman, said that to her knowledge no one in the Defense Department communicated with Moscow in advance, other than the acknowledged use of a military-to-military hotline that has routinely helped minimize the risk of U.S.-Russian collisions or confrontations in Syrian airspace. Officials said this did not include giving Russian advance notice of where or when allied airstrikes would happen.
Russia has military forces, including air defenses, in several areas of Syria to support President Bashar Assad in his long war against anti-government rebels.
Russia and Iran called the use of force by the United States and its allies a “military crime” and “act of aggression.” The U.N. Security Council met to debate the strikes, but rejected a Russian resolution calling for condemnation of the “aggression” by the three Western allies.
Trump’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, told the session that the president has made it clear that if Assad uses poison gas again, “the United States is locked and loaded.”
Assad denies he has used chemical weapons, and the Trump administration has yet to present hard evidence of what it says precipitated the allied missiles attack: a chlorine gas attack on civilians in Douma on April 7. The U.S. says it suspects that sarin gas also was used.
“Good souls will not be humiliated,” Assad tweeted, while hundreds of Syrians gathered in Damascus, the capital, where they flashed victory signs and waved flags in scenes of defiance after the early morning barrage.
The strikes “successfully hit every target,” White told reporters at the Pentagon. The military said there were three targets: the Barzah chemical weapons research and development site in the Damascus area, a chemical weapons storage facility near Homs and a chemical weapons “bunker” a few miles from the second target.
Although officials said the singular target was Assad’s chemical weapons capability, his air force, including helicopters he allegedly has used to drop chemical weapons on civilians, were spared. In a U.S. military action a year ago in response to a sarin gas attack, the Pentagon said missiles took out nearly 20 percent of the Syrian air force.
As of Saturday, neither Syria nor its Russian or Iranian allies retaliated, Pentagon officials said.
The U.S.-led operation won broad Western support. The NATO alliance gave its full backing; NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels that the attack was about ensuring that chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the attack “necessary and appropriate.”
In his televised address from the White House on Friday evening, Trump said the U.S. was prepared to sustain economic, diplomatic and military pressure on Assad until the Syrian leader ends what Trump called a criminal pattern of killing his own people with internationally banned chemical weapons. That did not mean military strikes would continue. In fact, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said no additional attacks were planned.
Asked about Trump’s “Mission Accomplished” assertion, White said it pointed to the successful targeting of three Syrian chemical weapons sites. What happens next, she said, is up to Assad and to his Russian and Iranian allies.
Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, said the allied airstrikes “took out the heart” of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal. He said the missiles hit the “sweet spot,” doing the expected level of damage while minimizing the unintentional release of toxic fumes that could be harmful to nearby civilians.
When pressed, he acknowledged that some unspecified portion of Assad’s chemical arms infrastructure was not targeted.
“There is still a residual element of the Syrian program that is out there,” McKenzie said, adding, “I’m not going to say they’re going to be unable to continue to conduct a chemical attack in the future. I suspect, however they’ll think long and hard about it.”
Assad’s Barzah research and development center in Damascus was destroyed, McKenzie said. “It does not exist anymore.”
A former officer in Syria’s chemical program, Adulsalam Abdulrazek, said Saturday the joint U.S., British, and French strikes hit “parts of but not the heart” of the program. He said the strikes were unlikely to curb the government’s ability to produce or launch new attacks. Speaking from rebel-held northern Syria, Abdulrazek told The Associated Press there were perhaps 50 warehouses in Syria that stored chemical weapons before the program was dismantled in 2013.
Vice President Mike Pence, in Peru for a meeting of regional leaders, said “there will be a price to pay” involving military force if Syrian chemical weapons are used again.
Disputing the Russian military’s contention that Syrian air defense units downed 71 allied missiles, McKenzie said no U.S. or allies missiles were stopped. He said Syria’s air defenses were ineffective and that many of the more than 40 surface-to-air missiles fired by the Syrians were launched after the allied attack was over. He said the U.S. knew of no civilians killed by allied missiles.
McKenzie said 105 U.S. and allied missiles were fired, of which 66 were Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from aboard three U.S. Navy ships and one Navy submarine. U.S., British and French attack aircraft, including two U.S. Air Force B-1B strategic bombers, launched stealthy, long-range missiles from outside Syrian airspace, officials said.
A global chemical warfare watchdog group, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said its fact-finding mission would go as planned in Douma.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin reaffirmed the Kremlin’s skepticism about the allies’ Douma claim, saying Russian military experts had found no trace of the attack. He criticized the U.S. and its allies for launching the strike without waiting for international inspectors to complete their visit to the area.
But British Prime Minister Theresa May said there was little doubt the Syrian government used a barrel bomb — large containers packed with fuel, explosives and scraps of metal — to deliver the chemicals at Douma. “No other group” could have carried out that attack, May said, adding that the allies’ use of force was “right and legal.”
Whiteout conditions spurred by 25 mph north winds shut Coulee Region traffic Saturday night, after a day of wind-driven sleet, freezing rain and snow alternated to keep roads slick.
When it came to snowfall, La Crosse sustained a glancing blow from a storm that shut down airports and closed highways in South Dakota, Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. The National Weather Service office in La Crosse recorded 3 inches of snow by 7 p.m. Black River Falls in Jackson County had 7 inches by the end of the afternoon, and 10 inches fell in Independence, in northern Trempealeau County.
The National Weather Service predicted 6 to 12 inches of snow along and north of Interstate 90, 2 to 6 inches south of the I-90 corridor, and a winter weather warning was in effect till 7 p.m. today.
The weather system stretched from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes, forcing flight cancellations and creating treacherous road conditions. Three people were killed in weather-related incidents, including a sleeping 2-year-old Louisiana girl.
In the Upper Midwest, the early spring storm brought snow to a region pining for sunshine and warmth. More than 200 flights were canceled Saturday at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and blizzard conditions forced the airport in South Dakota’s biggest city, Sioux Falls, to remain closed for a second straight day. Some flights at the La Crosse Regional Airport were delayed or canceled.
The Minnesota Twins home game against the Chicago White Sox at Target Field was also snowed out, marking the first back-to-back postponements of baseball games in the stadium’s nine seasons.
Authorities closed several highways in southwestern Minnesota, where no travel was advised, and driving conditions were difficult across the entire southern half of the state, well into western Wisconsin.
“It’s a cool experience for me, the best Minneapolis experience,” said Niko Heiligman of Aachen, Germany, who braved the snow to take a walk along the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. “I’m only here for the weekend, so I guess that’s how it goes. There’s snow and it’s cold. So it’s good.”
The storm is expected to persist through today in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan before moving into New York state and New England.
A band of 6 to 18 inches of snow had fallen by Saturday morning across central and northeastern Wisconsin, with another round on the way. A blizzard warning was issued for the northern half of Wisconsin, which was expected to get another 14 inches by Sunday evening. Winds of up to 55 mph caused blowing and drifting snow, along with ice shoves in Green Bay.
In Chicago, Lake Michigan waves were expected to reach as high as 18 feet, prompting a flood warning until today along the lakefront.
Huron, an eastern South Dakota city of about 13,000 people, received 18 inches of snow.
One of the three storm-related deaths occurred Friday on snow-covered Interstate 80 near Chappell in western Nebraska, where the State Patrol said an Idaho truck driver lost control of his semitrailer and slammed into a semi that had become stranded. Rollo Ward, 61, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, died at the scene.
Another death happened early Saturday in northwestern Louisiana when a storm toppled a tree onto a mobile home in Haughton, killing a sleeping 2-year-old girl inside.
A woman died in a spinout on a slippery highway in central Wisconsin on Saturday morning. The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office said the 30-year-old woman from Poynette, Wis., was driving a minivan that began to spin and crossed the centerline of Hwy. 16 in the town of Lewiston, where it was struck by an oncoming SUV. The road was slush-covered and light, freezing rain was falling.
The storm made its mark in Texas, too, where hail stones the size of chicken eggs fell on areas south of Dallas and Fort Worth.
Mary Lang Sollinger has been a prolific Democratic fundraiser over the years, connecting candidates and donors at her Madison home on Lake Mendota and at national events in Washington, D.C.
Leading up to the 2008 presidential primary she organized a dozen events for Barack Obama. In Wisconsin’s 2014 gubernatorial race she introduced Mary Burke to her national fundraising network and along with her husband she gave the eventual Democratic nominee $2,000 almost a year before the primary.
This year the top Democratic gubernatorial candidates have asked Sollinger for help raising money, but she has told them that she’s staying out of the race, at least until the nomination process sorts itself out in mid-August.
“We have such a full house of candidates it’s very difficult to pick one out,” Sollinger said in an interview. “This is the time to get new ideas and do new things. I’ve told all of them, once it’s the day after the primary, I’m in there with both feet.”
Sollinger isn’t the only major Democratic donor on the sidelines because of the sprawling gubernatorial field.
A Wisconsin State Journal analysis found only 14 of the top 50 donors to state Democratic candidates and legislative campaign committees over the past decade had given a total of $49,000 to their party’s gubernatorial candidates last year. (Though that excludes Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, one of the 50 and a gubernatorial candidate who gave himself $268,000 last year).
The number is down from four years ago when 24 of those top donors gave Burke, a Madison school board member, $185,300 in 2013 alone, the year before the election. Burke was able to contribute millions of her own wealth to the campaign, but only had nominal competition in the primary.
Meanwhile, 33 of the top 50 Republican donors over the past decade gave Gov. Scott Walker more than $600,000 through this past December, according to data compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Several Democratic operatives and donors acknowledged there are some among the donor ranks who, like Sollinger, are staying out of the gubernatorial primary. But they emphasized it has more to do with the number of candidates than with the quality.
The indecision among some Democratic donors reflects broader uncertainty among voters about the candidates — 44 percent of respondents to the latest Marquette Law School Poll said they didn’t know whom to support.
“I don’t think these donors, just like your friends and family at the dinner table, have quite figured out who has the best chance of winning,” said Patrick Guarasci, a former Democratic National Committee finance committee vice-chairman and fundraiser for Gov. Jim Doyle.
Hesitation among top donors leaves a lot of resources on the sidelines that could otherwise pay for advertising to build name recognition or counter advertising from the Walker campaign.
Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairwoman Martha Laning acknowledged some donors are not committing resources to the candidates like they did for Burke in 2014, though Laning said that reflects the different environment where more than a dozen candidates could end up on the primary ballot. In 2014, party leaders were pulling for Burke early in the process. Laning also anticipates donors are poised to back the nominee, whoever it is, starting in August.
“Our donors really like to evaluate and assess where their money is going and making sure they’re making a wise decision,” Laning said. “Certainly when you have a lot of people all trying to fundraise, there’s limited dollars out there and you’re dividing those dollars. I do think it adds challenges, but I think our candidates are rising to the occasion. We’re really seeing that it’s about a grassroots effort.”
Tom Steyer, a hedge fund billionaire who is pumping millions of dollars into the state to encourage young people to vote for Democrats in November, said in an interview the state’s late primary and lack of a gubernatorial frontrunner present some challenges.
“That’s going to be tough on Democrats in a lot of ways because it doesn’t give whoever wins the primary much time to pivot and raise money and build an operation,” Steyer said.
The Democratic field includes nine candidates who had hired campaign staff as of the beginning of this year — Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, former state Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn, Milwaukee-area businessman Andy Gronik, former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe, Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin president Mahlon Mitchell, former Rep. Kelda Roys of Madison, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma and Wachs.
The Marquette poll found Evers had 18 percent support followed by Soglin with 9 percent, though they also had the most name recognition among the candidates.
Six other candidates also have signaled plans to run, including Josh Pade, a 38-year-old Kenosha native and senior analyst for J. Crew who moved back to Wisconsin a year ago and announced last week he was joining the fray. Two candidates who previously said they were running, Bob Harlow and Michele Doolan, dropped out in recent weeks and endorsed Flynn.
The top nine candidates all said in response to questions from the Wisconsin State Journal they welcome the large field and aren’t calling for any competitors to drop out. None gave any indication that fundraising has been a challenge — some even said it’s going strong — though none was willing to share first-quarter fundraising figures.
Wisconsin doesn’t have quarterly campaign finance reports for state candidates, so voters won’t be able to assess the fundraising strength of each campaign until mid-year reports come out in July — about a month before the primary.
“With so many people in the field, forums and public events are getting covered which is great,” said McCabe campaign manager Christine Welcher. “However individual candidates aren’t getting much attention which is causing the lower rates of recognition as shown by the Marquette poll.”
The period for collecting the 2,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot begins Sunday and ends June 1, the same weekend as the state party convention in Oshkosh.
Gary Goyke, a lobbyist and former Democratic lawmaker, said some of the donors who are waiting might make a decision after the convention, where in previous years candidates have had opportunities to court party activists, deliver a major speech and participate in a straw poll. Laning said no decisions have been made yet on a format for candidates to speak at the convention or on party-sponsored candidate debates.
Goyke said the benefit of a larger field is it has been harder for Walker to target any one candidate.
“I don’t see it as a disadvantage to have a wide array of candidates,” Goyke said. “If anything it has produced more enthusiasm and more interest.”
Still, there are only a limited amount of resources, and with so many campaigns vying for them, the field will start to separate into those who have the ability to advertise and those who don’t, said Alex Lasry, a Milwaukee Bucks executive and Democratic donor who last week endorsed Wachs.
Lasry said he’s aware of some donors who are waiting out the primary, but he hasn’t seen that from “a ton of people.”
“It’s still really early,” Lasry said. “There is probably going to start to be some separation at the top, probably in the next month or two. Money is going to dry up and support is going to have to consolidate a little bit.”
Walker campaign spokesman Austin Altenburg pointed to a handful of episodes in recent months where candidates have started to jab at each other as a sign of the growing competitiveness for available resources.
Roys, for example, recently knocked baby boomers — which describes seven of the candidates — as a generation that doesn’t “fully appreciate” the issues facing young voters. Mitchell has called out McCabe for not pledging to support the eventual nominee. Wachs tweeted that Evers endangered transgender students by allowing school districts to set bathroom policy. Soglin told the Juneau County Star-Times that Evers had “peaked” as a candidate. And in a recent interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Gronik called his eight opponents “different flavors of vanilla.”
“Democrats in the wide-open field for governor are literally fighting for attention because there’s no breakout candidate to rally around, but it’s certain that whomever emerges will be well-funded,” Altenburg said, referring to outside liberal groups that plan to spend heavily on the race.
Former state Sen. Tim Cullen, one of the top 50 donors to state Democratic candidates, gave $10,000 to Burke in 2013 but in 2017 only gave $100 to Evers, though he hasn’t endorsed yet. He said as the race unfolds over the coming weeks the amount of money raised will be one important factor, but who puts together the best campaign with the most volunteers knocking on doors will also matter.
Five of the campaigns shared updates on how many paid staff they have with Flynn (6), McCabe (6), Mitchell (5) and Roys (4) adding staff since December and Wachs reducing his staff from 10 to eight. Evers, Gronik, Soglin and Vinehout didn’t provide an exact count.
The field could also start to separate as candidates say things that get negative or positive media coverage, Cullen said. Roys, for example, has seen her Twitter and Facebook followers increase 52 percent since January, moving her from sixth most to third most behind Gronik and Evers. The boost could be related to the national media attention she received last month when she released a political ad in which she breastfeeds her infant daughter.
“Those kind of events happen,” Cullen said. “Somebody will say something not too smart and somebody will say something brilliant and that could make a difference in the end.”
Sollinger isn’t worried about the hesitation on the part of some donors. She said it will encourage the candidates to get creative in how they navigate a path to the nomination.
“This is a time for retail politics and getting out and working down the shoe leather a little bit,” Solinger said. “The old-fashioned way when we didn’t have money.”