Experts are divided over whether US strikes on Syria signal moral policing or bad strategy
NEW YORK, United States – Analysts in the United States reacted cautiously to President Donald Trump’s decision to order a massive military strike on a Syrian airbase on Thursday in retaliation for a “barbaric” chemical attack he blamed on President Bashar al-Assad.
Responses were guided by two major forces – the first was support for Trump’s moral effort to punish Assad for a suspected nerve gas attack that killed dozens civilians in Idlib province. and to deter the Syrian leader from future attacks.
But this was tempered by concerns over whether strikes would draw the US deeper into the quagmire of Syria’s six-year-old civil war and lead to a confrontation with one of Assad’s main backers, a nuclear-armed Russia.
The US launches missiles against the Syrian base on 7 April 2017 (AFP/US Navy)
"Assad has reminded the US and the world that his military campaign – and that of his external backers – is a crime against humanity,” Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a think-tank, told Middle East Eye.
“President Trump is upholding America’s commitment to international law, as he should,” Cafarella added.
Others were more circumspect. Jonathan Cristol, a scholar from the World Policy Institute, another think-tank, said the launch of some 50 Tomahawk missiles from US destroyers at a Syrian air base was in line with enforcing global rules on chemical weapons.
President Trump is upholding America’s commitment to international law, as he should
- Jennifer Cafarella, Institute for the Study of War
“In principle, I think that a policy of zero tolerance for use of weapons of mass destruction [WMDs] makes sense, and the US has an interest in maintaining the norm against the non-use of chemical weapons,” Cristol told MEE.
But Cristol also warned against deepening Washington's involvement in the Syrian conflict, which the US has been largely watching from the sidelines.
“For me, Trump’s motivations here are not relevant in evaluating this particular action, and so I’m cautiously supportive of the strike,” Cristol added. “It certainly remains to be seen, though, what Trump’s actual end-game is in Syria, or if he has one at all.”
Others, such as Barak Barfi, an analyst with the New America Foundation, also a think-tank, were immediately critical of Trump’s strikes for being purely a gesture without any clear strategy.
“It’s a basic, symbolic American response. It’s not going to change Assad’s calculus; it might not even deter him from using chemical weapons in the future,” said Barfi, who travels frequently to the region.
“Launching 59 Tomahawk missiles against an isolated airfield without taking out Assad’s command and control assets or fixed-wing aircraft begs questions about what message we’re trying to send with this airstrike.”
Launching 59 Tomahawk missiles against an isolated airfield without taking out Assad’s command and control assets or fixed-wing aircraft begs questions about what message we’re trying to send with this airstrike
- Barak Barfi, New America Foundation
Though the strikes enabled Trump to look tough to his home crowd and before a key meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Florida, they do not send a cohesive message to Assad about his next moves.
“The calculus here isn’t very well worked out,” said Barfi.
“What happens when Assad launches barrel bombs or when he uses chlorine gas? Once you’ve opened Pandora’s Box it’s very hard to close it. How do you measure success? How do you prevent escalation with the Russians? What happens with the Iranians?”
'Crossed a lot of lines'
A Pentagon official said about 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from the USS Porter and the USS Ross in the eastern Mediterranean at aircraft and runways on Syria’s Shayrat Airfield at 8:45pm Eastern Time on Thursday, or the early Friday morning hours in Syria.
Speaking from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, Trump said the strike targeted the base from which Tuesday's chemical weapons attack was launched. He branded Assad a “dictator” who had “launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians”.
Syria denied using chemical weapons.
The sudden US military action against the Assad goverment marks a development in Syria's brutal, conflict and a sudden about-face for Trump. It came in spite of a warning from Russia’s UN envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, of potential "negative consequences".
The fast-moving events came just days after the Trump administration had signalled it was no longer seeking the Syrian leader's departure from power. The gas attack on Khan Sheikhun appears to have marked a turning point for Trump and his administration.
On Wednesday Trump decried the attack as an “affront to humanity”. He seemed horrified by photographs showing dead children and victims suffering convulsions, breathing problems and foaming at the mouth.
"It crossed a lot of lines for me," Trump said, alluding to former President Barack Obama's failure to enforce his own "red line" on the use of chemical weapons in Syria four years ago.
According to Cafarella, Trump’s decision to launch air strikes marked a shift in the administration’s approach to Syria that “will change everyone's calculus” and force “adversaries and enemies” to recalculate.
“There can be no future for Assad and his regime in Syria. It is good that the Trump administration has recognized that the regime must go in order for negotiated settlement to occur,” Cafarella told MEE.
“Demonstrating America's will to use military force is a necessary first step. President Trump still needs a larger strategy to achieve the outcomes that US national security and humanity require.”