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Analysts Say U.S. Strikes In Syria Unlikely To Be Precursor To Deeper Involvement

  • Alan Crosby

An image released by the U.S. Navy shows the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter conducting cruise-missile strikes against the Shayrat Airfield in Syria on April 7.

The cruise-missile strike launched by the United States against an air base in Syria in the early hours of April 7 was a specifically targeted attack and not a precursor to war against that Mideast state, according to analysts.

The launching of 59 Tomahawk missiles from two U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea at Syria's western Shayrat Airfield was President Donald Trump's most ambitious military order since becoming president.

But analysts said Trump’s message with the strikes was likely aimed at stopping the use of chemical weapons, and not a prelude to deeper U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict.

"Tonight's strikes may deter Assad, compel Russian cooperation w/ US interests, not lead to deeper US military involvement,” Micah Zenko, an expert on military intervention at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an April 7 tweet.

"Trump's statement makes it clear U.S. cruise missile strikes are for enhancing [international] norm against CW [chemical weapons] use, not protecting Syrian civilians,” he added.

The attack, in retaliation for a suspected nerve-gas attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 that killed more than 80 people, was the first U.S. assault explicitly targeting President Bashar al-Assad’s government in six years of civil war that has killed more than 300,000 Syrians, displaced millions of people, and threatened to pit regional and global powers against each other.

"It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons," Trump said in announcing the U.S. action. "There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons and violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council. Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically." Trump cited the ongoing refugee crisis and regional instability "threatening the United States and its allies."

Officials in Damascus insist their forces did not use chemical agents in Khan Sheikhoun.

It remains unclear whether the United States plans to strike further targets in Syria.

“I suspect it depends also on what President Assad does," Tomas Valasek, director of think tank Carnegie Europe, told RFE/RL. "The trigger for the strike and the reason for the strike was quite obvious. It was obviously to make the point that chemical weapons are not to be used, that they really are off limits. So I suspect that whether force will be used again depends on whether President Assad takes that message to heart or not."

Valasek said he doubts the strikes are part of any plan to broaden U.S. involvement on the ground in Syria. Nor does he think it will push the NATO security alliance into action in the region.

The U.S. missile attack raised the ire of the pro-Assad Kremlin, which was reportedly informed of the offensive ahead of time, with Russian President Vladimir Putin calling the strikes against a sovereign state a "violation of...international law" that will "inflict major damage" to U.S.-Russia relations, according to spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Russia has lent Assad crucial diplomatic and military support throughout the war, including advanced air-defense equipment and an air campaign by Russian warplanes beginning in September 2015.

Russia has a military area at Shayrat Airfield, but Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said precautions were taken by U.S. officials to ensure that area was not hit during the strikes.

Russia's Defense Ministry said on April 7 that "a set of measures will be taken in the immediate future to reinforce and raise the effectiveness of the Syrian armed forces' air-defense system," according to TASS.

Moscow also said it was suspending an agreement with Washington that is aimed at preventing midair incidents over Syria.

Many U.S. lawmakers have feared any intervention in Syria could drag American forces deeper into the conflict, a scenario they are loathe to repeat with open-ended commitments with the memories of Iraq still fresh in their minds.

"The strike was intended to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again," Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said. "The use of chemical weapons against innocent people will not be tolerated."

In being careful to call the strikes "targeted" and "to prevent and deter the spread of chemical weapons," Trump’s order may not threaten Assad directly, but it is "still a shock to the regime's system," said Jeff White, a defense analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East policy.

Andrew Exum, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy, said that while there is still much to be learned over the impact and reasoning behind the strikes, "the U.S. hand in negotiations over the fate of Bashar al-Assad is now strengthened."

President Barack Obama in 2013 declined to engage the U.S. military directly in Syria after officials and outside experts concluded that Assad had used chemical weapons in an even deadlier attack on civilians.

Obama had warned the Syrian government to avoid crossing a "red line" of "a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized."

At the time, Trump, a billionaire real-estate developer and reality-TV celebrity, directed tweets at the U.S. president saying "do not attack Syria" and warning "there is no upside and tremendous downside."

Trump also argued that "the President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria."

"The fact that the Obama administration didn’t actually strike Syria when there was a major use of chemical weapons some years ago has been hotly debated since, and frankly I’m not surprised by what we have seen," Ian Lesser, an analyst and vice president for foreign policy at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, told RFE/RL.

"It's not so much about Syria, in a sense, as it is about the norms surrounding the use of weapons of mass destruction, and the United States and its allies have a very strong interest in upholding those norms."

Still, the strikes caught many observers off-guard, even though they are not the first by U.S. forces in Syria.

In September, a military base in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour was targeted. Sixty-two people were killed in the offensive and over 100 government soldiers were wounded. However, the Pentagon said the strike was meant to hit Islamic State (IS) militants and not a government installation, making the last U.S. military operation directed at an Arab government the 2011 intervention in Libya.

Nonetheless, the April 7 attacks, which came just 77 days into the Trump administration’s tenure, reinforce signals of a major shift in U.S. policy with respect to Assad.

As recently as last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested Assad’s fate should be left to the Syrian people to decide.

"Conversations are already under way," Tillerson said just before the strikes. "There would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people."

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