TSG IntelBrief: The U.S. Strikes the Syrian Regime
April 7, 2017

The U.S. Strikes the Syrian Regime

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• On April 6, the U.S. military launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase, marking the first direct attack by the U.S. against the Assad regime.

• In a live statement, U.S. President Donald Trump said the attack on Shayrat airbase was in direct response to the chemical weapons attack launched from the base on April 4.

• Russia called the U.S. strikes a violation of international law and suspended an agreement to lower the risk of mid-air collisions between the U.S. and Russian militaries over Syria.

• U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated the strike was not a reflection of a change in U.S. policy towards negotiating the removal of Assad.

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The April 4 chemical weapons attack in Idlib, Syria, in which the Assad regime used sarin gas to kill at least 80 people, was more than just the latest Assad war crime in a conflict with no shortage of atrocities. Indeed, the attack appears to have changed the status quo of the war, though it remains to be seen how lasting and significant the change will be. In response to Assad’s most recent chemical weapons attack, the U.S. conducted a direct strike against the Syrian regime’s forces, marking the first time the U.S. has intentionally targeted Assad’s forces since the conflict began in March 2011. The U.S. strike consisted of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from two U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea, which struck a regime airbase in Homs, Syria. Until now, the U.S. has directed its military efforts in Syria to the fight against the so-called Islamic State, which is authorized—however tenuously—under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).

According to U.S. officials, as well as a live statement by President Trump, Shayrat airbase was the base from which the regime launched the April 4 chemical weapons attack. The base is also used by Russia, whose forces in Syria were given warning of the attack and were not targeted in the strike. Images of the aftermath of the targeted U.S. attack show extensive damage to the airfield. The missile strikes have roiled the already shaky relations between Russia and the U.S., but are unlikely to create a complete rupture. In a statement released by the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the attack, calling the strikes a violation of international law against a sovereign country. In response to the strikes, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it was suspending ongoing de-confliction efforts between the U.S. and Russian militaries intended to avoid mid-air collisions in Syrian airspace. Russia also called for an immediate meeting of the UN Security Council, just as the West did earlier in the week in response to the chemical weapons attack in Idlib. In that meeting, which took place just hours before the U.S. launched the strikes against the Syrian military, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley strongly condemned the Assad regime’s atrocities and Russia’s complicity, and indicated that the U.S. was considering a unilateral response. The UN Security Council has been unable to effectively respond to the Syrian civil war since the conflict began due to the opposing stances and interests of two of its most powerful members, Russia and the U.S. In light of the U.S. strikes and Russia’s reaction, the stalemate on the Security Council is unlikely to change soon.

Over the course of the Syrian civil war, the conflict has increasingly become a theater of international military operations, with the militaries of the U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey, and others actively engaged in an entanglement of support and opposition for various sides. As such, the conflict has been viewed by some through the lens of U.S. and Russian forces operating in Syria, given the consequences of any potential direct confrontation between the two in the crowded Syrian airspace and battlefields. Yet above all, the war remains a disaster for the Syrian people, who have faced atrocities from all sides engaged in the conflict—but overwhelmingly from the Assad regime. In its various statements about the missile strikes, the U.S. indicated the attack was meant to send a message that such atrocities by the Assad regime would no longer be met with impunity. Beyond sending a message about the newfound U.S. willingness to use force against the Assad regime, it is unclear exactly what strategic purpose these strikes were meant to serve. Striking one airfield will not decisively defeat the Assad regime’s ability to launch chemical weapons attacks against its own people, which can be conducted through a variety of other means. Nor will such limited strikes reduce the regime’s conventional weapons capabilities, which have caused the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths compared to chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict. Though the U.S. strikes against the Assad regime represent a marked shift in U.S. strategy towards the Syrian war, the tangible impact on the trajectory of the conflict—both in terms of the civil war itself as well as the broader international implications—remains to be seen.

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