The US Navy launched dozens of cruise missiles on Thursday night at a Syrian airfield President Bashar Assad used to carry out a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people earlier this week.
Moving forward, the question for US President Donald Trump now becomes: How deeply does the US want to get involved in the most complex situation in the Middle East?
The Tomahawk missiles, launched from the USS Ross and the USS Porter at dawn local time on Friday, represent the first US strikes on the Assad regime, according to a statement from the Pentagon.
The strikes have received broad approval from more mainstream Republicans, such as Reps. Paul Ryan and Jason Chaffetz, and cautious approval from Democrats. Hours before the US launched the missiles, Hillary Clinton said the previous administration “should have been more willing to confront Assad” after previous chemical attacks killed thousands of innocent civilians.
There are conflicting reports as to how much damage the strikes actually caused. ABC News has reported that Syrian officials evacuated personnel and moved equipment ahead of the strikes, after receiving warning from the Russians. The BBC has reported, however, that the Syrian airbase is “now out of service,” and “all jets seem to be destroyed.” Reuters said the attack resulted in “losses.”
Russia, an Assad ally, said the effectiveness of the US strikes had been “extremely low” and that only 23 out of the 59 missiles hit their targets.
In any case, many Syrians are jubilant.
“This is the happiest news I have heard in my life,” a resident of Khan Sheikhoun, where the chemical attack took place, told reporter Richard Hall.
“It was absolutely the right decision,” Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, told Business Insider on Friday morning. “For the first time in six years the dictator Assad understands that if he uses chemical weapons against kids he will be punished and there will be consequences.”
Others took to Facebook and Twitter to express their relief that Assad had finally been held accountable.
“‘Never Again’ must not become, ‘Well, maybe just this once'”
Military and national security experts broadly agreed that the strikes were a good move. But they also cautioned that the attack was largely symbolic — a focused strike on a narrow target — and won’t complicate the Assad regime’s ability to carry out large-scale massacres in the future.
“The American strike on Shayrat air base in Syria is an appropriate response to [Assad’s] mass homicide,” said Fred Hof, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former US special adviser on Syria.
It “will either be a one-time, one-off, fire-and-forget retaliation for a heinous chemical weapons assault on civilians, or it will serve as a signal to the Assad regime and its allies that the free ride for mass murder in Syria is now over,” Hof said.
If it was meant as a message, the Assad regime and its allies have not taken it sitting down.
The Syrian army immediately accused the US of “blatant aggression,” alleging that the strike killed six people and caused “big material losses.” The army also said it would respond by continuing to “crush terrorism” — an indication that it will continue to attack areas held by rebels, who have long been characterised by the Assad regime as terrorists.
Iran and Russia, meanwhile — two staunch Assad allies — are already slamming the US for the strikes and doubling down on their efforts to defend the regime.
On Friday morning, the Kremlin condemned the US “aggression against a foreign state,” saying it broke international law. Russia then redirected a ship armed with cruise missiles to the eastern Mediterranean and vowed to bolster its air defences at Syrian airbases.
“Washington’s step will inflict major damage on US-Russia ties,” Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin, said on Friday.
The popular mood in Russia appears to be different from the government’s knee-jerk reaction, however.
“There will be many screams on the Russian television with people condemning the strikes, but everybody understands that this is just a symbolic act meant for Trump to look different from Obama,” Vladimir Frolov, a foreign affairs analyst, told The New York Times.
“There won’t be any tangible reaction,” he said. “This was a one-off strike.”
Russia’s dedication to protecting Assad is a major reason why “the distinction between one-off retaliation and complicating mass homicide in a sustained manner is critical,” Hof said.
“There is no administration interest in violent regime change, invasion, or occupation,” he added. “There may and should be interest in getting Assad out of the mass homicide business altogether.”
Speaking to reporters on Thursday night, however, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged that “obviously, the regime will retain a certain capacity to commit mass murder with chemical weapons beyond this airfield.” But he said Americans “should not in any way extrapolate” that the strikes “changed our policy or posture on Syria in any way.”
“Through the Geneva process, we will start a political process to resolve Syria’s future in terms of its governance structure,” Tillerson added. “And that ultimately, in our view, will lead to a resolution of Bashar al-Assad’s departure.”
Hof cautioned against this approach, arguing that “with civilians on Assad’s bullseye, there can be no sustainable peace talks or political compromise in Geneva or anywhere.”
“If the strikes of April 6, 2017, end the Assad crime wave against Syrian civilians, good,” Hof said. “If they do not, further action will be essential. ‘Never Again’ must not become ‘Well, maybe just this once.'”
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