US President Donald Trump’s decision to unleash 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on the Shayrat Syrian air base in retaliation for the alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian air force in Khan Sheikhun village near the city of Homs is a dangerous escalation in US intervention in the Syrian conflict.
It is also the first direct assault by the US on Bashar al Assad’s government. For the last six years, the US has been waging a proxy war against that government through jihadi extremist groups. When the Syrian chemical weapons crisis came to a head in 2013, Russia helped broker and then oversee an agreement to eliminate the country’s chemical weapons.
Since then, Bashar al Assad’s fortunes have definitely taken a turn for the better. The Russian intervention to bolster the government has turned the tide of battle in favour of Assad and until this missile strike, had even persuaded the Trump administration to announce that the objective of overthrowing the ‘new lion of Damascus’ was no longer on Washington’s agenda. Three things are troubling about the US’s unilateral assault on Syria. First, the responsibility for what happened in Khan Sheikhun is not clear. Washington and its western allies have jumped the gun by accusing the Syrian government, which has denied it. Damascus’s ally Russia has claimed the chemicals were stored by the rebels hit in the air strikes.
Even before this issue was settled and evidence obtained, Trump decided to strike, prompting the Bolivian Ambassador Sacha Lorenti, whose country had called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council (UNSC) in the wake of Trump’s attack, to state that the US behaved like investigator, attorney, judge and executioner. The world however proved divided over the Trump action. The US’s western allies sided with Washington. Equally predictably, Russia and Iran condemned the attack as a flagrant violation of international law and naked aggression against a sovereign country. The Muslim world too paralleled the general picture by its divide for and against the US’s unilateralism. Perhaps most dangerously, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev revealed that the US strikes brought Washington and Moscow one step away from a military clash.
The Shayrat airbase houses Russian special forces and military helicopters in support of Damascus’ campaign against the opposition groups trying to overthrow his government. The revelation is doubly significant in that the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, while defending her government’s actions, threatened the possibility of more such actions if found necessary.
Washington’s efforts to overthrow al Assad through extremist proxies having been reversed by Russian intervention on the side of Damascus, which already enjoys strong support of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Trump’s assault signals the possibility of the US assuming a direct military role in the Syrian war. This course carries within it the seeds of a possible clash with Russia. As it is Moscow decided after President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with his security council to scrap the October 2015 agreement with Washington on avoidance of conflict in Syrian airspace between the two powers.