Here's Why US Missile Strikes on Syria Appear Symbolic For Now
Hours after President Trump accused the Syrian government of crossing “many, many lines”, 59 Tomahawk missiles fired from two US warships in the Mediterranean Sea struck the government controlled Shayrat airbase.
In this image provided by the US Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) launches a tomahawk land attack missile in the Mediterranean Sea, Friday, April 7, 2017. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams/US Navy via AP)
Hours after President Trump accused the Syrian government of crossing “many, many lines”, 59 Tomahawk missiles fired from two US warships in the Mediterranean Sea struck the government controlled Shayrat airbase. The Syrian aircraft, which allegedly carried out the poison gas attack on civilians in Idlib Province on Tuesday, is said to have taken off from the same airbase.
The attack is in stark contrast to actions of the Obama administration. In 2013, after the Assad government carried out a chemical weapons strike in the Ghouta district of Damascus, the US had almost resorted to military attacks against the Syrian government. This was called off after Syria agreed to a US-Russia deal to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile for destruction. It is now apparent that some chemical weapons were retained by Syria.
The US strike signals a shift in how the Trump administration will approach the conflict in Syria. However, whether this will mean a greater and more direct American role in the Syrian civil war is still unclear. As of now the Tomahawk attack appears to be a limited action, more symbolic rather than a precursor to a new sustained and more forceful military approach. There are some obvious pointers – only one airfield was struck, the Russians were warned of the impending strike and would have informed the Syrian government. The latter would have moved out at least some of the critical equipment from the airbase. Some eyewitnesses have reported evacuation of personnel from the airbase prior to the attack.
The Americans may well want to see the back of Assad but there is no clarity on what will follow. Regime changes have not always led to stability, as we are witnessing in Libya. The vacuum in Syria could be filled by radical, Islamic terrorists and strengthen the ISIS, the opposite scenario to what the Americans want to achieve in the Middle East.
Obviously, Syria has no options for any direct action against US forces but indirect threats cannot be ruled out. Iran, which has also strongly backed Assad, has a significant presence in Iraq where they are supporting the Shiite militia. Currently the Shiite militia is fighting the ISIS and therefore has a common aim with the US forces in Iraq but his could change. Pressure on Assad could see Iran-backed militia targeting American soldiers, vitiating an already complicated situation in Iraq.
There are also some positives. Greater pressure on Assad could lead to a stable cease-fire agreement, something that has eluded Syria despite many attempts in the past. The Syrian government will, at least for the present, shun the use of chemical weapons. Both these will bring enormous relief to the civil population that has witnessed a huge human tragedy unfolding in Syria.
It is only hours after the Tomahawks hit the ground in Syria but opinions are already divided on the wisdom of the strike. Clearly there are both positives and negatives. How the new Trump administrations treads its future path will be the real challenge.
(The author is former Northern Commander, Indian Army, under whose leadership India carried out surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016. Views are personal.)
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