At around 8.45pm EDT on Thursday, two US destroyers in the Mediterranean launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, striking the regime-controlled al-Shayrat Syrian airbase, close to the city of Homs.
The strike is the first direct US military action against the Assad regime since the civil war began in 2011. Whether the move is a symbolic gesture of deterrence or the start of a major shift in US policy in the region remains unclear. It does represent the administration’s most significant foreign policy step since taking office in January.
The Trump administration’s action comes as a response to the use of chemical weapons in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikoun in Idlib province, northwestern Syria.
A Swift Response
The attack, which left over 80 people dead including 30 children, is widely believed to have been that of a nerve-agent, likely Sarin gas, carried out by Syrian Government forces.
Against international condemnation, Moscow defended its ally, claiming instead that regime aircraft had dropped conventional ordnance on a “terrorist” stockpile of “toxic substances”, incidentally releasing the deadly chemical.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said:
“The President is willing to take decisive action when called for. I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There has been no change in that status.”
He did, however, accuse Russia of being either “complicit” or “simply incompetent” in upholding its end of a 2013 deal meant to ensure the removal of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. The Pentagon confirmed that Russia had been informed in advance of the strike through military channels.
The Bigger Picture
The move is likely in part aimed at sending a message to the governments of North Korea and Iran, two key actors in the Trump administration’s list of foreign policy priorities. The move does appear to be at odds with many of Trump’s statements from 2013, following the Ghouta chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus.
House Speaker Paul Ryan referred to the strike, saying: “This action was appropriate and just”.
The Democratic reaction was mixed – while many were broadly supportive, some called the strike’s lack of Congressional approval ‘unlawful’.
Many of Trump’s prominent supporters took to Twitter to express their dissent, as a major schism opened up within his Conservative and Alt-right fan base.
Ben Shapiro, former editor of Breitbart News, tweeted that the strike was “a good first step.” In sharp contrast, Paul Joseph Watson of the far-right conspiracy site InfoWars, whose YouTube videos have garnered over 180 million views, and formerly one of Trump’s most popular supporters, criticised the move and said he was “officially off the Trump train.”
The UK prime minister, Theresa May, said that “the UK government fully supports the US action”. The opposition Labour party appeared divided over the matter, with its leader Jeremy Corbyn saying that the action should not have been carried out without UN backing, while its deputy leader, Tom Watson, was supportive, saying that the chemical attack “must have consequences”.
Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull echoed the UK government’s response, stating “this was a proportionate response… It is not designed to overthrow the Assad regime.” The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that “Israel fully supports President Trump’s decision”. Saudi Arabia praised the strike as a “courageous decision.”
The Governor of Homs, Talal Barazi, told the Syrian state television that “Syrian policy will not change”, and that the US strikes “serve the goals of terrorism in Syria”. Assad’s longtime economic and military partner, Russian President Vladimir Putin, condemned the American attack, calling it an “act of aggression against a sovereign state”.
Implications for the Military Situation
The move marks a sharp departure from what many observers had thought to be an ongoing cooling of US-Russia tensions since the inauguration of Donald Trump.
The highly complex civil war features state actors arrayed on two broad sides. The US-led coalition, Operation Inherent Resolve, the joint task force that has been bombing Islamic State targets in both Iraq and Syria since late 2014, includes forces from over 30 countries, including the US-aligned Gulf Emirates. Many of its member states have also been supplying weapons and equipment to opposition rebel groups, in an attempt to facilitate the defeat of Syrian Government forces.
On the other side, Bashar al-Assad’s regime is supported by its long-time ally Russia, as well as by Iranian ground forces and troops from the Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah. The Russian reaction to the strike was rapid and predictable, strongly condemning the attack and suspending its memorandum agreement with the US in which information about the position of each side’s aircrafts was shared in order to prevent any incidents occurring between the two semi-opposed forces.
The long-term geopolitical implications of the move remain to be seen and are dependent on what change in overall policy the move heralds on the part of western nations. With the aid of Russian close air support, President Assad’s forces have made large gains in recent years, seizing back territory from both Western-backed rebel groups, as well as from Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda affiliates. Several Syrian rebel groups publically applauded the move.
It appears likely that the Trump administration, having campaigned on a broadly isolationist platform, will want to avoid becoming bogged down in the power struggle, but having declared its belief that Assad cannot be part of the country’s long-term future, it will likely try to influence Russia into withdrawing direct support for the regime.
However, the Syrian army, along its Iranian, Lebanese and other supporting forces, have significant control of Western Syria, and it is unclear if the remaining moderate rebel factions, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces which includes dozens of different groups, are capable of facing them without a major increase in direct US support.
In the northeast, the US-backed Kurdish YPG forces have made major territorial gains, and are, along with the SDF, currently preparing to launch a US-backed assault on the Islamic States’s capital, Raqqa.
Financial Market Reaction
US Treasuries and other safe haven assets saw a spike in demand on Friday, with yields on 10-year debt dropping five basis points to 2.289%, the lowest level since November. The yen, another source of perceived safety for investors, rose across the board. Oil climbed amid concerns over how the attack could affect supplies from Syria’s allies Iran and Russia, two of the world’s biggest producers. E-mini S&P 500 futures lost 0.3%, while gold climbed 0.9%, to $1,262.46 per ounce.
The early market reaction calmed with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remarks, which implied that no major change in overall US policy towards Syria was underway, with the US military not about to embark on a full-scale ’Shock and Awe’-type campaign of regime change in the immediate future.
The surprise move comes the same day as Trump’s highly-anticipated meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which had already rattled markets following Trump’s comments about his desire to decrease the US trade deficit with China.
Trump’s brand of vulgar, protectionist rhetoric has left exposed financial markets uneasy over the direction of the two nation’s close economic relationship. South Korea’s won slipped 0.6%, over fears surrounding the strike’s implications for the escalating situation with North Korea.
Trump had just days before signalled that a unilateral US attack on Kim Jong Un’s regime was on the table, should the state continue to expand its nuclear capability.