Four days after the U.S. launched missiles at a key Syrian air base in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, the Trump administration’s first big military move is escalating diplomatic tensions.
Russia has doubled down on its support for its ally Bashar Assad, stepping up military aid and deploying a warship off the Syrian coast. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on the other hand, has harshly criticized Russia and says the country’s failure to rein in Assad led to last week’s chemical attack. Tillerson will arrive in Moscow this week to meet with Russian officials, as White House officials suggest the possibility of future U.S. engagement.
But little has changed on the ground in Syria, where a six-year civil war continues to rage. Russian and Syrian jets have carried out airstrikes in the days following the U.S. attack, including reported bombings in the same town where toxic gas killed scores last week, triggering President Donald Trump’s retaliation. On Monday, activists and Britain-based monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes also dropped incendiary cluster bombs across Syria’s Idlib and Hama provinces.
The U.S. strike, of course, was never intended to halt Syria’s conflict or stop the use of conventional weapons. Tillerson has essentially said the U.S. strike was a punitive response to the gas attack, designed to deter the future use of chemical weapons. Rather than the start of a broader U.S. political or military intervention into Syria’s war, Tillerson said the strikes were a warning that the U.S. would not tolerate this specific violation of international law.
“Other than that, there is no change to our military posture,” Tillerson told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on Sunday.
It remains to be seen whether the U.S. strike will have the intended effect of stopping Assad from using chemical weapons, or what the White House will do if another gas attack occurs. It’s possible Assad could view such U.S. strikes as an acceptable cost ― especially if the damage is as low as Syrian government officials claimed. The governor of Homs over the weekend said that the bombed base is back in operation.
U.S. officials claim the strikes took a significant toll on Syria’s military. White House press secretary Sean Spicer and a Department of Defense statement denied that the airfield was operational.
“The Syrian government has lost the ability to refuel or rearm aircraft at Shayrat airfield and at this point, use of the runway is of idle military interest,” U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in the statement.
Mattis said the strike destroyed 20 percent of Syria’s total aircraft ― a significant blow if it is the case. The U.S. Central Command had earlier tweeted that the objective was to strike planes and fuel reserves at the base, not to destroy the airport.
Regardless of the missile strike’s success, there remains the question of what policy the Trump administration is pursuing in Syria, and whether this punitive measure is part of a larger strategy. Although Tillerson said the strikes were limited in their aim, both Spicer and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, made statements leaving the door open for possible regime change.
The discrepancies in White House officials’ messaging has led to further confusion over U.S. long-term goals in Syria. Washington has done a rapid turnaround from just a week ago, when both Tillerson and Haley were emphasizing that Assad’s removal was not a top priority.
For years, the U.S. showed it was unwilling to accept the risks of a Syrian intervention, and it’s still unclear whether that calculus has changed under Trump. The primary U.S. target in the region is ISIS ― including a planned offensive to retake the city of Raqqa from the militant group.
The Syrian peace process has been stalled for years. Despite a ceasefire that has been in place since December, fighting and airstrikes persist.
As the world waits to see whether the U.S. pursues further military intervention, it seems fairly certain that the White House has little interest in assuming a larger role in Syria’s humanitarian crisis. The Trump administration has taken no measures to help civilians pushed from their homes by the war. In fact, the Trump government is doing the opposite, cutting foreign aid and shunning Syrian refugees.
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