Date first published: 11/04/2017
Key sectors: security; infrastructure
Key risks: war on land; political violence; terrorism
On 4 April, a fixed-wing aircraft dropped four missiles on the town of Khan Shaykhun in rebel-controlled Idlib province. The international community mobilised swiftly after video and photography from the town suggested one of those four carried bombs loaded with a nerve agent, with early investigations suggesting the use of sarin.
This was the latest in a series of chemical weapons attacks carried out by the regime against anti-government communities since the outbreak of the uprising in 2011. The regime is not the only entity in the civil war which has weaponised chemicals to further its military aims. Islamic State (IS) and government forces have used chlorine, which is not designated a chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention. The 4 April incident however confirms suspicions that the government’s stockpile, only publicly declared in 2012, was not fully destroyed as previously claimed.
In a policy about-face, US President Donald Trump approved missiles strikes against the al-Shayrat air base near Homs in response to the 4 April attack. In the early hours of 7 April, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from the USS Ross and USS Porter in the Mediterranean. Tomahawk cruise missiles can produce small bomblets on impact, not leading to the deep craters one often associates with sophisticated explosives. Syrian government assets – planes, fuel storage tankers – were successfully targeted. However, since the runways were barely damaged, within 12 hours Syrian aircraft were again flying sorties from the base.
Despite Trump’s initial decisive action, US messaging on Syria has not changed. The US wishes to see the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and a peaceful solution to the six-year long civil war. Senior Trump staff confirmed there were no immediate plans to pursue military action after that round of airstrikes. Contrary to growing popular opinion, the positions of UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson do not diverge. They merely describe different timelines. It is not a contradiction to believe Bashar al-Assad does not have future in the longer-term as Syria’s leader and wish to maintain his position insofar as it is amenable to maintaining regional stability while the details of a peace agreement are thrashed out.
Bashar al-Assad has been given a stronger hand by events, at least for now. The US airstrikes, which did little material damage to one of Syria’s largest bases, have so far had little true opportunity cost for both Syria and its allies and the US. Despite the attacks, the concurrent Astana and Geneva talks continue, and these, supported by the US’s actions, maintain the status quo of Bashar’s premiership. The aftermath of the airstrikes may yet be an excellent opportunity to ignite the stronger relationship with Russia Trump so desires. By approving the Astana talks as the primary negotiations, Trump could state publicly he is encouraging an end to the Syrian conflict without additional US military resources while proving amenable to Russia. This could prove the final nail in the coffin for opposition efforts to extract what limited concessions they can from the regime
Russian state-media coverage of senior Russian politicians stating the Kremlin would not deploy its anti-aircraft missile systems against US missiles in Syria shows the Russians are prepared to act in a measured manner in order to avoid a wider escalation, recognising this situation would suit no one but Bashar al-Assad.
The next steps in this process will be driven by Trump’s fickleness. Undisciplined messaging from senior White House officials will prove distracting in the weeks ahead, but if Trump truly seeks a grand bargain with Russia, the Syrian opportunity remains in play.