By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Middle East Security
US airstrikes have just made the sprawling, chaotic conflict in Syria even more complex. For the first time the Assad regime has come under attack for its use of chemical weapons against its own population. President Obama rejected such operations for fear of entanglement and escalation, ultimately eroding US credibility and influence in the most important modern conflict in the Middle East; President Trump has chosen to intervene, though it is unclear why and to what end.
The 5 April chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held province of Idlib, which killed dozens of civilians in gruesome fashion, is not unprecedented. Conventional weapons and barrel bombs have killed more Syrians. But it is the largest and most flagrant attack of this kind in recent times and the suspected use of sarin (a deadly nerve agent) is a humiliation for the US and other countries, given that Syria had supposedly been disarmed of such weapons in 2014.
The US strikes came in the form of 59 Tomahawk missiles launched against the Shayrat base south of the city of Homs. Western intelligence agencies assess that Syrian bombers equipped with chemical payload took off from there. The damage is serious but not devastating. It will affect Assad’s capacity to kill civilians but does not erode his military capacity on the key frontlines.
The swift reaction of the Trump administration has taken many by surprise. It broke with widely-held assumptions about Trump’s preference for working with Russia and possibly Assad to defeat the Islamic State. But, as all policymakers know, events shape decision-making as much as preferences.
The limited size of the strike points to the US administration’s objective: deterrence against further use of chemical weapons and punishment. The US had other options, including widening the scope of the strike, destroying Assad’s fixed or rotary-wing capabilities, and targeting command-and-control resources. The fact that Russia was informed beforehand, and statements by Trump and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, indicate that the US is unwilling to escalate further at this point. The American game plan remains unclear: what will Washington, which had largely disengaged from Syria in recent months, do with its new leverage? Only a swift and smart resumption of diplomacy, with the US reengaging diplomatically and working to facilitate a political transition, can avoid a dragged-out military process where the US bombs Syrian positions at regular intervals without clear goal or returns.
It is unlikely that similar strikes will change the military landscape in Syria. An intervention in 2013 could have helped the rebellion’s military advance, and possibly created divisions and more defections in the Assad regime. It is too late for that. The strikes come after the mainstream rebellion suffered debilitating setbacks, and as Iran and Russia are entrenching themselves in Damascus. Previous goals of unseating Assad or capturing large cities are now well beyond rebel capabilities. The Syrian battlefield is dizzying given the number of actors operating in parallel or fighting each other. The US remains focused on defeating Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. It is very possible that today’s operation will complicate that goal, if Russia suspends its military de-confliction with the US or interferes with the effort.