The United States launched a fiery attack on the Shayrat air base, believed to have been used by the Syrian government to launch warplanes responsible for the chemical attack last week. The U.S. missiles hit at 8:45 p.m. in Washington, 3:45 a.m. Friday morning in Syria. About 59 Tomhawk cruise missiles, launched from its fleet in the Mediterranean Sea, targeted the base’s airstrips, hangars, control tower and ammunition areas. The Syrian government, led by the embattled Bashar al-Assad, has been widely held responsible for the attack targeting civilians in the rebel-held Id-lib province with a nerve agent, possibly sarin gas. Most observers agree that the attack amounted to war crime, with heartbreaking footage of people choking in the streets flooding the internet.
It should be noted that this is hardly the first instance that the Syrian goverment has used chemical weapons in the six year civil war that has left hundreds and thousands dead, and precipitated the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. The Ghouta attacks in 2013, where sarin gas was confirmed to have been used by Assad’s forces, had nearly led President Obama to intervene militarily. However, this was averted when Assad’s government agreed to eliminate its entire stockpile of chemical weapons, to be verified by international inspectors. The chemical attack, if proven to have been carried out by the Syrian government, is a direct violation of this treaty.
It is unclear what the show of force by the US forces is going to achieve, however. The unilateral action (this was not authorized by the UNSC, where Assad’s ally Russia holds veto) is expected to ratchet up tensions with Russia, which is involved militarily in the civil war. It also brings the prospect of a face off between the former Cold War enemies. Also, if Assad steps up on the chemical attacks, it would be logical for the US to get more involved that this single precision strike, and it is not entirely plausible that the American public will back another war in the region, after barely a decade since invading Iraq. President Donald Trump, ever the populist, will lack both incentive and support for such a move.
The Republicans have come forward in support of Trump with John McCain and Marco Rubio praising the action. While popular democrats and Senators have called this action unconstitutional (given there was no bill raised in the Congress to put the strikes to vote) and an act of war.
There is also the raging war against ISIS in neighboring Iraq and parts of Syria, where US personnel is engaged directly. Observers fear that the fall of Assad will create a power vacuum like in 2014 that led to the rise of ISIS. Any involvement in the Syrian civil war also threatens the operations in Iraq, where the international community has converged to eliminate the notorious terror group in Mosul and Raqqa.The surprise move also represents a break from Donald Trump’s America First policy, who appears somewhat moved by the humanitarian situation, calling it a “disgrace to humanity” and “crossing a lot of lines”. The move, arguably, is more in line with President Obama’s policies, although Trump breaks with Obama on the fact the move was not sanctioned by the international community.
It remains to be seen what impact this barrage of missiles will have on the civil war, or even on Assad’s intent or actions. The only clear takeaway is that the US has a lot more stake in the war now, and the reset of ties with Russia, expected under Trump, is definitely not happening.