In the early morning of Friday, 7 April, the United States fired 59 GPS-guided Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian airbase of Shayrat from two Navy warships stationed in the Mediterranean Sea. The attack – an unexpected volte-face from an administration and a President hitherto dismayed at the historically interventionist character of U.S. foreign policy – became the first case of U.S. military action against Syrian government forces since the beginning of the country’s civil war in 2011.
U.S. officials said that the Shayrat airbase, situated in Homs province, was home to the airplanes that released a colourless, odourless nerve agent called sarin over the Syrian province of Idlib on 4 April. The culprit – a highly volatile liquid, i.e. one that easily evaporates into a gas – took the lives of at least 80 civilians, amongst them children, who convulsed and suffocated to their deaths. The U.S. military operation came as unilateral retribution, after the United Nations Security Council failed to pass a new draft resolution on Syria following Tuesday’s attack.
“Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children,” said U.S. President Trump whilst addressing journalists at Mar-a-Lago, his family compound in Palm Beach, Florida shortly after the missiles were launched. “It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.” When administered in lethal doses – as tiny as a grain of salt if it were solid – sarin inhibits the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which is essential for the breakdown of acetylcholine – the neurotransmitter released by the nervous system to activate muscles. Without a counteragent, acetylcholine continues to stimulate muscles involved in breathing function, brings about respiratory paralysis at the neuromuscular junctions of the diaphragm, and causes death from asphyxiation within one to ten painful and undignified minutes during which a victim is also subjugated to SLUDGE.
Trump called the U.S. intervention an act of “vital national security interest … to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” Damascus, which supposedly turned its stockpile of chemical weapons over for destruction in a deal brokered by Russia – one of President Bashar al-Assad’s greatest – in 2013, categorically denies using sarin in Idlib.
In the wake of the U.S. operation, American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Russia had been either “complicit” or “simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of the agreement” on Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley shared Tillerson’s assertions, but also offered the thought that the Assad regime could have been “playing the Russians for fools, telling them that there are no chemical weapons, all the while stockpiling them on their bases.”
The ensuing investigation has led the United States to the “preliminary conclusion that Russia knew in advance of Syria’s [4 April] chemical weapons attack,”reported the Associated Press on Monday, 10 April, citing an anonymous senior U.S. official. The United States has yet to find concrete proof of Moscow’s involvement, which is precisely why Tillerson and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – who cancelled his 10 April trip to Moscow on Saturday – failed to win support from European allies for targeted sanctions against Russian officials at the G7 meeting in Lucca, Italy on 11 April. Tillerson is still expected to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on 12 April.
The U.S. operation, launched in a matter of 48 hours without congressional approval, evoked a maelstrom of reactions and speculation in the days that followed. On the surface, the intervention came as an unexpected change of tone from President Trump, who – affected by troubling video footage of dying victims – suddenly found himself between a rock and a hard place. He could either remain complaisant in the face of an atrocious violation of international law and – through non-interventionism in Syria – risk continuing the legacy of his predecessor Barack Obama, or he could act upon his humanitarian instinct, attack the Syrian airbase, and risk antagonising Assad and, accordingly, Putin.
Though the Pentagon gave the Russians advance warning of the attack, Friday’s development has invited the castigation and ire of officials in Syria, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Meanwhile, though many in the West have received a promising taste of resolved action against Assad, questions abound regarding Trump’s long-term strategy and general reliability.
Was this is a one-off occurrence for a president who was once decidedly vocal on Twitter in advising his predecessor to “stay the hell out of Syria” or does it truly mark a turning point in Trump’s foreign policy? Has the U.S. operation irrevocably compromised the course of U.S.-Russian relations or did, as some leftist theorists have implied, Putin and Trump personally orchestrate both the chemical weapons attack and the U.S. response as a red herring to divert public attention from ongoing investigations on pre-election liaisons between Trump and Russia? Most importantly, will the U.S. operation actually deter the future use of chemical weapons against Syria’s citizens or generally make them any less susceptible to government-incited violence?
Effectiveness and immediate consequences
There are conflicting reports of the success of the U.S. operation. “Initial indications are that this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at Shayrat Airfield, reducing the Syrian Government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons,” said Pentagon spokesperson Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, specifying that the missiles “hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defence systems, and radars.” Russian defence ministry spokesperson major general Igor Konashenkov was quick to dismiss the combat effectiveness of the American strike, claiming at a Friday briefing that only 23 missiles had hit their intended targets, i.e. less than half, and that the whereabouts of the remaining 36 was unknown. Russian television channel Rossiya 24 claimed that as few as nine aeroplanes were damaged. U.S. officials, however, said that of the 59 missiles – 36 of them launched from the USS Ross and 23 from the USS Porter – 58 hit their intended targets and took out approximately 20 aeroplanes. Arab news aggregator Al-Masdar News reported that at least 15 fighter jets were damaged or destroyed and that several explosions ensued after missiles struck the compound’s fuel tankers, causing a fire that roared for hours. There were reportedly no Russian aeroplanes at the site.
Calling the strike “a proportional response to Assad’s heinous act,” Davis stressed that U.S. military took every precaution to “avoid civilian casualties” and execute the strike “with minimal risk to [Russian or Syrian] personnel at the airfield.” He also said that the U.S. military had given Russia’s Defence Ministry advance warning of its plans to strike. This point is of particular importance, because, though the airbase could not have reasonably been cleared of equipment in such a short amount of time, the United States acted diplomatically in presenting the Russians and the Syrians with an opportunity to evacuate military personnel, i.e. the potential human losses of any attack. In warning the Russians, the United States ensured that its operation was not exactly offensive and punitive, but more reactive and preventative. An unnamed non-Syrian senior military source fighting in the pro-Assad alliance told Reuters said “the airbase had been mostly evacuated” thanks to Russia’s warning and that “only a few out-of-service jets were destroyed”.
Nevertheless, Syrian officials said the U.S. missiles had killed at least six people on the targeted airbase itself, amongst them at least one general, and Syrian state news agency SANA reported that nine civilians, including four children, were killed in the suburbs surrounding the base. There were no Russian casualties in the attack, said Duma member and first deputy chairman of local veterans’ organisation Boevoe Bratstvo (translation: Combat Brotherhood) Dmitry Sablin in an interview with news agency Interfax on Friday.
Reactions from West to East
During his address at Mar-a-Lago, an emotional Trump called on “all civilized nations to join [the United States] in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.” His intervention was generally met with support from a wide range of U.S. allies in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, including Israeli and Ukrainian officials and anti-Assad rebels. U.K. Ambassador to the United Nations Matthew Rycroft said that “the U.S. strike was a proportionate response to unspeakable acts that gave rise to overwhelming humanitarian distress.” He also reprimanded Russia for giving “Assad everything he could dream of,” including seven vetoes on Security Council resolutions on Syria and noted that Russia has now been “humiliated by its failure to bring to heel a puppet dictator, entirely propped up by Russia itself and Hezbollah and Iran.”
Russians, from government officials to the media, however, spoke out harshly against American intervention in Syria. “The United States launched a missile strike against the Syrian government military airbase, [an] attack on a sovereign state without the approval of the U.N. Security Council without the approval of the U.S. Congress and, in fact, without any reason. There have yet been no results of the investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Idlib, but Assad has already [been declared] guilty. The military effectiveness of the American attack [amounted to but] a few broken planes,” sardonically said Russian talk show host Vladimir Solovyev in the opening segment of his evening programme on state-owned television channel Rossiya 1, offering a superficial, yet comparatively mild nutshell view of Russian sentiment regarding America’s operation.
On Friday morning, Kremlin spokesperson Dimitri Peskov stated that Putin saw the U.S. strike was an act of “aggression against a sovereign state” committed under “a far-fetched pretext” and intended to divert the international community’s attention from casualties amongst Iraqi civilians. Peskov also stressed that Syria has no chemical weapons, as they were all destroyed in 2013 as per the deal brokered by Russia after the Syrian government released sarin over the densely-populated and poorly-ventilated Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August 2013, killing an estimated 281 to 1,729 people, some as they slept.
Numerous Russian officials have communicated the sentiment that the strike has caused significant damage to what Peskov described as already “deplorable” Russian-American relations. In a Facebook post on Friday, Prime Minister Medvedev reprimanded the Trump administration for foregoing congressional approval and said that the United States was on the “verge of military clashes with Russia.” Foreign Minister Lavrov said that the current situation reminded him of the United States’ and Great Britain’s 2003 invasion of Iraq without the consent of the U.N. Security Council.
Chairman of the Russian Duma’s international affairs committee Leonid Slutsky said that the U.S. operation in Syria was a sign of “double standards” and accused the United States of “turning a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons by terrorists in Iraqi Mosul [just] a few weeks ago.” Speaking on television channel NTV, foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, who is known to forgo diplomatic niceties and once entertained journalists with an impromptu Russian folk dance, said that the U.S. missile strike was part of an “American game of thrones” linked to an “internal political struggle in Washington” ensuing from an inability to accept election results. “The U.S. absolutely [lacks an] exact strategy towards Syria,” she said, adding that “Americans will be ashamed” for their actions.
The Washington Post cited U.S. officials on Friday as saying that the decision to launch the missile attack had been made following 48 hours of intense deliberations. Russia’s foreign ministry officials, however, believe that the United States had been planning to use cruise missiles against Syria for quite some time and that the events of 4 April served as but an excuse to implement their plan. “To any specialist it is evident that the decision to strike [against Syria] was made in Washington before the events in Idlib, which were simply used as an excuse for demonstrating strength,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zakharova on Friday.
This statement by Zakharova, along with some of the other emotional, dismissive, and provocative statements made by Russian officials, should be taken with a grain of salt, as they do not necessarily communicate official accusations against the United States or offer much beyond speculation. Some of these statements are reminiscent of the rhetoric that is characteristic of Russian officials in the face of behaviour that they find hostile, rhetoric that could be seen, for instance, in the response of Kremlin spokesperson Peskov’s to a report on Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s “secret empire” published by opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation in early March 2017. “This is not the first show of creativity by this well-known convicted citizen,” said Peskov, who, like a number of Russian officials, failed to comment on the accusations made against Medvedev and chose to criticize Navalny instead.
In an interview with news agency Interfax on Friday 7 April, Syria’s ambassador to Russia Riyad Haddad said that “aggression confirms that the Americans support the leaders of ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front and serves as evidence of their [cooperation with terrorists].” Though such comments may seem especially absurd to Western ears, they were commonplace on Friday in both the Russian Duma and across Russian media, as the Shayrat airbase is home to aeroplanes that target key positions of Islamic State group militants across the province. “On a daily basis, pilots took off [from this site] to strike against ISIS militants. So it turns out that, with its actions, Washington supported the fanatics of the pseudo-Caliphate,” read an article in Russian news source Vesti on Friday.
According to The Washington Post, though some U.S. officials urged immediate action against Assad in light of his government’s alleged chemical weapons attack, others were especially wary of a response from Russia, which had set up sophisticated air-defence systems in Syria. Such reservations proved warranted. On Friday, Russian defence ministry spokesperson major general Konashenkov said at a briefing that Russian would strengthen its anti-aircraft warfare systems “to [protect] the most sensitive objects of Syria’s infrastructure.” On Sunday, Reuters reported that a joint command centre composed of Russian, Iranian, and pro-Assad militias forces had said that the U.S. had “crossed ‘red lines’ and [that the centre] would respond to any new aggression and increase its support for its ally.”
On Saturday, French news agency AFP cited North Korean state media as saying the “U.S. missile strikes on Syria were an ‘intolerable act of aggression’ that ‘proves a million times over’ that strengthening its nuclear programme was the right choice.” In response, the Pentagon decided to deploy an aircraft carrier group, headed by the supercarrier USS Carl Vinson, to waters near the Korean peninsula, in what the Financial Times described as a “show of force,” quoting a government official. This action further ignited the wrath of North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-Un and, on Tuesday 11 April, Korean Central News Agency quoted the reclusive country’s Foreign Ministry as saying that the United States would be held “wholly accountable for the catastrophic consequences to be entailed by its outrageous actions” and that North Korea was “ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S.”
Stepping out of Obama’s shadow
The U.S. Congress must authorise any military engagements. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt waited a day to deliver his impassioned Infamy Speech at a Joint Session the morning after Imperial Japan’s sudden and deliberate attack against the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. A formal declaration of war followed within an hour and only after that did the United States engage in any attacks against the Axis power. In September 2013, Congress rejected Barack Obama’s request for congressional approval for mere retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians in the suburb of Ghouta. Evidently aware that he risked defeat, Obama sought congressional approval nevertheless, and, having failed to secure it, respectfully did not proceed with military action.
This time round, Trump, who insisted that Obama not bypass the legislative body back in 2013, chose to overstep Congress entirely in what was technically a violation of U.S. law. Ironically, with a few exceptions like the isolationist libertarian Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky who called Trump’s actions “unconstitutional”, U.S. politicians and officials, amongst them many of the congressional Republicans, such as Senator Marco Rubio, who opposed Obama’s request for similar action against Syria in 2013, expressed overwhelming support for the new president’s decision after the fact. Accordingly, there has been a general consensus in the United States that Trump’s decision, which was also made without the authorisation of the U.N. Security Council, was “illegal but legitimate,” as lecturer in national security and public international law at the University of Ottawa Craig Forcese suggested in his editorial for Canadian newspaper of record The Globe and the Mail.
Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued a joint statement in the wake of Trump’s operation: “Unlike the previous administration, President Trump confronted a pivotal moment in Syria and took action.” As written in a previous Cambridge Globalist article by this author, “What does Putin want in Syria?”: “Over the course of the Syrian conflict, Obama ha[d] set many red lines – political points of no return whose violation he vowed would elicit a firm American response – but continuously failed to follow through on his warnings once these thresholds were crossed. As The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg astutely observed in his analysis ‘The Obama Doctrine’: ‘for some foreign-policy experts, even within his own administration, Obama’s about-face on enforcing the red line was a dispiriting moment in which he displayed irresolution and naïveté, and did lasting damage to America’s standing in the world.’ One example of this failure was comically vocalised in September 2013, when, whilst commenting on the consequences that Assad’s government would face if it failed to hand over its chemical weapons, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that America’s attack would be ‘unbelievably small.’”
Though seemingly motivated by justice and humanitarianism, it is possible that Trump’s action arose from an egotistical desire to step out of Obama’s shadow in doing what Obama would not, both in choosing not to come before Congress and launching an attack. The Obama administration’s repeated failure to reprimand Russia for violating agreed-upon ceasefires and its inaction in the face of Assad’s use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians may have made the West look weak and uncommitted, but Trump’s readiness to recklessly launch an attack without being directly provoked has put the United States, and its Western allies, in dangerous waters, as evidenced by the retaliatory measures that Assad’s allies and supporters seem prepared to take. Most importantly, it has set a dangerous precedent that stands in opposition to the principles of separation of power and checks and balances that form the intellectual foundation of U.S. governance by introducing a Putinesque “vertical of power” in which the president unilaterally decides and the legislative branch simply nods its head in approval.
Short-term to long-term consequences
In the wake of the U.S. operation, Russia called for an immediate meeting of the U.N. Security Council and suspended a joint 2015 memorandum on air safety in Syria, terminating the so-called deconfliction line set up in October 2015 and, thereby, the exchange of information on warplane missions between Moscow and Washington in Syrian airspace. This development may have catastrophic repercussions in the event of a collision of aeroplanes, repercussions that may even come in the form of direct military conflict between Russia and the United States.
For years, Russia has had the upper hand, domineering the path towards resolution in Syria. It is possible that Trump’s strike has now changed the entire playing field, though, as Joshua Yaffa wrote in The New Yorker on Friday: “[The] strike confirms Trump’s basic unpredictability—that he has no real coherent foreign-policy program or agenda, and that what his Administration says and does can change from day to day. If Putin’s dream is to sit down with Trump and draw lines on a map of the world, dividing up spheres of influence, how can he do that with such an unreliable counterpart?” Nevertheless, it may just be possible that equal partnership is not what Trump seeks. After all, Tillerson’s comments in Italy on 11 April that Assad’s reign was “coming to an end” and that Russian’s continued support of the Syrian leader had become an embarrassment suggests, as the The New York Times highlighted, that the U.S. Secretary of State sees Russia as being “at risk of becoming irrelevant in the Middle East.” Trump’s initiative, therefore, may even have served the long-term purpose of giving him the upper hand.
Overall, the U.S. attack served as a powerful warning that attacks on innocent civilians would not be tolerated. By taking out airplanes and other pertinent military resources, the U.S. military strove to compromise the Syrian regime’s ability to launch airstrikes in the immediate vicinity. However, as established earlier, it is unclear exactly how effective the operation was, especially in light of the fact that, as early as Saturday, i.e. within 24 hours of the U.S. operation, Russian-language media across the post-Soviet sphere was reporting that the Syrian airbase had at least partially resumed its operation. This information was confirmed by Homs province governor Talal Barazi in an interview with Reuters the same day.
The morning after the 7 April strike, Al-Masdar News cited Syrian military officials as saying that ISIS militants had taken advantage of the chaos caused by the U.S. operation and launched an offensive not far from the Shayrat airfield in eastern Homs. The news aggregator claimed that the terrorists had “attacked a number of Syrian government military checkpoints near a strategically important settlement,” adding that, though the militants had not made significant progress, the situation could very well shortly change in the terrorists’ favour. If there is any credence to these reports, then the United States could greatly benefit from continuing to exchange intelligence with Russia on the ground, something that Russian officials claim could now be compromised in light of recent events. The question is, was teaching Assad a lesson worth giving ISIS the chance to advance and possibly cause even more destruction?
The strike has also invited conversation on Trump’s lack of coherent, long-term strategy in Syria and general unpredictability, both in light of the emotional impetus behind his impromptu action and other developments such as Washington’s sudden resolve for a “show of force” against North Korea. Though White House spokesperson Sean Spicer insisted on Monday that Trump had “made it very clear” that the United States would take further action if Assad’s atrocities were to continue, it remains unclear whether Trump is truly committed to pursuing justice or simply seeks to boost his approval at home, as well as opportunities to assert his influence as the leader of the free world.