US military operation
The US Department of Defense (DoD) has stated that two US naval destroyers stationed in the eastern Mediterranean Sea launched a total of 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) at Syria’s Sharyat Airbase, located approximately 25 km southeast of Homs City, at 04:40 (local time) on April 7.
According to the DoD, “the TLAMs targeted aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum, logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars”.
Additionally, the DoD further stated that the operation was conducted in response to a chemical weapons attack on April 4 in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib Governorate, which the US intelligence services assessed was conducted by Syrian Arab Air Force (SAAF) aircraft from the Sharyat Airbase. The DoD claimed that the base had been used to store chemical weapons, though the chemical weapons storage units were not among the specific targets stated by the department. Additionally, Russian forces were stationed at the base.
Moreover, the DoD stated that Russia was notified of the operation before it had commenced, which was meant to “minimize risk to Russian and Syrian personnel stationed at the airfield.”
Results and international reaction
According to reports, at least six Syrian military personnel were killed in the airstrikes. While multiple reports state that Syrian leadership had removed some of its aerial fleet in advance of the TLAMs’ launching, additional reports indicate that at least 15 Syrian aircraft were destroyed during the operation. In response, a spokesperson for the Syrian army reportedly described the missile strike as an act of “flagrant aggression.”
According to reports citing Russian officials, the Kremlin considered the US operation as “ an act of aggression against a sovereign state,” thus “violating the norms of international law.” Furthermore, Russian defense officials reportedly stated that military cooperation with its US counterparts, specifically that relating to the movement of their aircraft in Syrian airspace, has been suspended as a response to the US missile strikes. Moreover, a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that the US operation represented a “significant blow” to US-Russian relations.
Additionally, a spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry reportedly condemned the operation, claiming that the missile strikes would lead to “the strengthening of failing terrorists” throughout the region.
That said, multiple Western nations, including the UK, France, and Germany, reportedly voiced support for the US operations, perceiving it as a “proportional response” to the Syrian government’s alleged chemical attack. In addition, the Israeli government reportedly “fully supports” the US operation, while Turkey reportedly viewed the missile strikes as a “positive response” to the Syrian government’s actions, and called for “safe zones in Syria without further delay.”
Assessments & Forecast
US operation likely symbolic, as opposed to being conducted for tactical advantages, and aimed to limit diplomatic fallout with Russia in order to prevent political and military backlash
This event is highly notable given that this is the first occasion on which the US military has conducted an attack against government-controlled targets in Syria, thus marking a significant change in US policy towards Syrian leadership. Furthermore, the high number of TLAMs launched is particularly significant, as this indicates that the US sought to inflict heavy damage to the airbase, as the use of this number of missiles, which feature a heavy payload, would render the airbase as unusable.
In this context, while this US operation was intended to cause physical damage to the airbase, it was also likely one of symbolic nature, as opposed to an effort at gaining a tactical advantage or military gains, namely given that the DoD stated that the planes that conducted the April 4 chemical attack in Idlib Governorate originated at Sharyat Airbase. This likelihood is further bolstered by the fact that the missile strike, while reducing Syria’s capabilities by air in the immediate area, does not significantly hinder the Syrian Army’s operations in the country overall. Although, the US maneuver likely limits the potential for the Syrian government to launch chemical attacks from Sharyat in the short term. Furthermore, it is important to note that the US military avoided hitting the chemical weapons stores likely in order to prevent the potential consequences of chemicals then being released into the air, thus causing unintended casualties in the vicinity.
Moreover, the US’s notification of Russian authorities prior to the strike likely demonstrates that the US sought to limit the diplomatic fallout between itself and Russia by avoiding sustaining casualties to Russian and allied Syrian military personnel. While bilateral tensions between the US and Russia have likely been strained, as would have been anticipated by US authorities, the situation would have been further exacerbated if Russian military personnel had been killed in the operation, or if a higher casualty count among Syrians had resulted. Thus, the likely aim of the US government was to avoid such implications, and instead, keep the missile strike in the framework of an act of retaliation against the chemical attack.
Motivations for US missile strikes likely political, including efforts by President Trump to distinguish himself from policies of Obama administration, and to demonstrate distance with Russian leadership
Through directing such an operation, the administration of US President Donald Trump is likely attempting to advance specific political objectives, as opposed to solely projecting an image of military might. Firstly, the president likely seeks to indicate that the US government maintains a low level of tolerance for Syrian actions that it perceives as war crimes and human rights violations, as those witnessed in the April 4 incident. In this context, such actions contrast greatly to the policies of former US President Barack Obama, who in August 2012 had established a “red line” regarding the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, but hesitated on acting once such attacks were ultimately conducted. Thus, given that Trump had widely criticized Obama for this inaction, the US President likely seeks to present himself as active in similar situations, responding against such perceived violations as took place on April 4.
Furthermore, in light of vast media attention being given to alleged ties between the Trump administration and Russian leadership, the move may have also been an effort by the former to demonstrate distance between itself and the latter, as the missile strike clearly opposed Russian interests in Syria. While the move was likely not intended at damaging bilateral relations between the two countries, as mentioned above, the maneuver does indicate the US government’s willingness to engage in policies that contradict the objectives of Russian authorities, thus shedding new light on the perception of Russian influence on US affairs.
With this in mind, the April 7 developments likely establish a new precedent, namely that the US will respond militarily to possible further war crimes and human rights violations by Syrian leadership affecting the civilian population. Furthermore, this US operation was likely launched at least in part to reassure the US’s Middle Eastern allies, who largely oppose the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that the US is willing to take military action in Syria against Assad. Overall, the missile strikes indicate the Trump administration’s increasing willingness to invoke more forcible measures in Syria and throughout the region to fulfill its own national security interests.
While military conflict between US, Russia, and Syria remains unlikely, on-the-ground fighting in country likely to be impacted as rebels and jihadist militants take advantage of disarray
Given that both the US and Russian governments likely seek to avoid a large-scale military confrontation with one another, as well as the Syrian government’s preoccupations in the ongoing civil war, we assess that the US missile strikes are unlikely to trigger armed conflict between the US on one side, and the Russian and Syrians on the other. While the Assad government likely desires to retaliate against the US missile strikes, such a move could be highly detrimental to the Syrian government, as the US military response to such retaliation would likely cause significant damage to Syrian infrastructure and personnel. Furthermore, as the US government has demonstrated an increased willingness to work with Russian leaders, particularly following the loosening of US sanctions on Russia on February 2, Russian authorities are likely attempting to avoid the potential backlash of a military conflict with the US, thus limiting the potential of military retaliation.
That said, the missile strikes are likely to impact on-the-ground fighting in Syria between the government on one side and rebels and jihadist militants on the other, potentially benefiting the latter in the short term. Given that the US operation caused significant damage to Syrian infrastructure in Homs Province, the rebels are likely to benefit from the move, as the Syrian aircraft in this area was likely used to target rebels in the general region. Thus, rebel forces may attempt to take advantage of the situation tactically, by consolidating positions north of Homs City, and potentially launching offensives against the Syrian Army in the coming days. Furthermore, the US operation has the potential to alter the Syrian government’s willingness to engage in large air raids against rebel-populated areas given the potential for backlash, thus potentially benefiting rebel forces throughout the country.
In addition, jihadist militants, namely Islamic State (IS), are likely to attempt to take advantage of the disarray caused by the US operation and attempt to make further gains in the region. Such instances have already been witnessed on April 8, when pro-Syrian government media reported that IS launched an offensive in the eastern Homs countryside, hours after the US missile strikes. In addition, given the disruptions in coordination between US and Russian forces regarding the targeting of IS positions throughout Syria, IS may capitalize on such interruptions in order to strengthen its footholds in the country. Overall, the potential for gains by rebel forces and IS against the Syrian government remains heightened in the coming days, namely as the Syrian government attempts to recover from the US missile strikes. That said, while an uptick in hostilities may be recorded in specific areas, particuarly Homs Province, we assess that the US operation is not likely to increase the threat level to foreign businesses operating in the region and in neighboring countries at this time.
We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.
Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Additionally, those remaining in Damascus are advised to avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.
Those continuing to operate or reside in Aleppo are advised to minimize movement in the city and its surroundings, given the frequency and broad nature of fighting in the city.
Avoid all travel to outlying areas and cities including Homs, Hama, and Idlib due to persistent fighting and heightened risk of kidnapping targeting foreigners, particularly in combat zones and rebel held areas.
Those seeking to enter Syria are advised to confirm the status of their crossing points and final destinations, remaining aware of recent kidnapping incidents and the nature of military forces deployed in those areas.