AS IT HAPPENED
0330 GMT, April 4: Reports emerge of a suspected nerve gas attack. More than 70 die and hundreds are injured. Syria denies using chemical weapons.
1030 GMT, April 4: Russia claims a Syrian air force jet hit a rebel-held chemical weapons depot.
1720 GMT April 5: The US rejects Russian claims that toxic substances were released when a Syrian regime strike hit a rebel-held chemical depot. Trump states the attack “crosses many, many lines”.
1810 GMT. April 6: US President Donald Trump alludes to the possibility of military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, telling the press “something should happen”. Defence Secretary Mattis reportedly briefed Trump on military options around this time.
0030 GMT, April 7: 59 tomahawk missiles launched from US naval ships in the Mediterranean target Syrian air force jets at the Al Shayrat airbase near Homs.
August 2012: Obama draws a “red line”, threatening military action against Syria should chemical weapons be utilised.
March 19, 2013: Syrian regime accused of using chemical weapons in rebel-held eastern Damascus.
April 28, 2013: Republicans urge President Obama to follow through with a threat of military action against the Syrian regime if it used chemical weapons. Obama does not.
September 14, 2013: Syria agrees to destroy a declared amount of its chemical weapons and signs the Chemical Weapons Convention.
June 23, 2014: The last declared Syrian chemical weapon stocks are shipped out of Syria.
July 2015: The US authorises airstrikes against ISIS and regime forces should they attack US-supported rebels.
December 2, 2016: US Congress authorises the incoming Trump administration to arm friendly Syrian rebels with anti-aircraft missiles.
March 31, 2017: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer calls Assad “a political reality that we have to accept”.
POTENTIAL OUTCOMES: INSIDE SYRIA
SYRIAN CONFLICT CONTINUES AS NORMAL
Despite a Russian-led ceasefire established in February this year, Syria has been anything but peaceful. Following rebel offensives in Damascus and Hama, last week’s chemical attack is the latest in a long series of ceasefire violations this year. If the US missile strikes don’t shock both the regime and rebels into obeying the ceasefire, they may unravel ongoing intra-Syrian peace talks entirely.
The Syrian regime will be reluctant to use chemical weapons now that US intervention is on the table. But this won’t end hostilities. Rather, Syrian rebels may be emboldened by the strikes, potentially encouraging them to pursue more ambitious targets, either under the assumption that they have American support or to take advantage of perceived regime hesitation.
On Friday morning, the special representative to the US and the UN from the Syrian National Coalition has publicly welcomed the strikes as “an opportunity to end the war”. However, how this newfound optimism translates into military and political strategy is unclear. The Syrian rebels are a notoriously diverse group with multiple objectives, and, while some may see the strikes as an opportunity to heap pressure on the regime to pursue political objectives at the negotiation table, others may see this as an opportunity to take a more aggressive military role.
US ADOPTS MORE MUSCULAR POLICY IN SYRIA BUT FOCUSSES ON ISIS
With Western and Arab powers largely praising Thursday’s missile strike, the US administration might feel encouraged to adopt a more muscular policy against another US foe in Syria: ISIS – one of Trump’s primary campaign promises.
Such action could eventually result in ‘boots on the ground’, a term used to indicate a large-scale military deployment. The US already has a substantial number of special forces operating in Syria, estimated to number at least 1,000. As demonstrated by Thursday’s actions, Trump favours quick and decisive attacks compared to his predecessor’s more restrained approach.
However, as a young and relatively inexperienced administration, this strategy could lead to a gradual military escalation. Instead of being quick and decisive, the US could become increasingly drawn into a dangerously complex conflict, finding that defeating ISIS and its affiliates is no easy task.
If the US takes this route to defeat ISIS, it will face the momentous task of navigating an already crowded playing field. While its troop presence in Syria may give the US more leverage at the civil war negotiation tables, it will be also hard pressed to avoid clashing with Syrian regime forces and, though more unlikely, Syria’s allies – Russia and Iran.
ASSAD PUSHES FOR PEACE
After years of US indifference to the regime’s various human rights abuses, the missile strikes could force Assad to reassess his position in the peace talks. Complete victory may no longer seem a viable option; Assad may be concerned that attempts to achieve it will prompt a larger US intervention.
Following the chemical attacks, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Syria does not have Russia’s unconditional support. With what little international support it has wavering, and the US demonstrating a willingness to intervene, Assad may instead seek to capitalise on his strong military and territorial position at the negotiation table.
Nevertheless, if peace is genuinely pursued, hostilities will still likely continue against ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates.
POTENTIAL OUTCOMES: OUTSIDE SYRIA
US-RUSSIA TIES DETERIORATE FURTHER
Thursday’s strike is the first US action to target the Syrian government. President Trump justified this break in policy by citing a “vital national security interest…to deter and prevent the use of chemical weapons”.
But Russia’s defence ministry, which has plenty of skin in the game, has publicly denied reports that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack last week. Instead, it insists the Syrian air force struck a rebel weapons cache that contained “toxic substances”. This puts Moscow in a tricky situation: either back away from its claim of an inadvertent strike and admit that Assad used chemical weapons, or stand by its previous statement, which would force it to condemn the US for an unjustified airstrike on Syrian facilities. The latter outcome is far more likely.
Russian condemnation began before the strikes were launched, with deputy UN envoy labelling the strike a “doubtful and tragic enterprise”. After the attack, a spokesperson for Vladimir Putin said the move “causes significant damage to Russian-American relations”.
A limited diplomatic spat between Russia and the US will follow. This could hamper efforts to find a political solution in Syria and stymie President Trump’s stated objective of rehabilitating ties between the two.
With a troubled economy, anti-corruption protests and the potential for further terror attacks at home, Vladimir Putin will be wary of creating a crisis with the US. On the other hand, the Kremlin may use Thursday’s missile attack – which targeted a base known to have a Russian military presence – to stoke nationalist sentiment.
As of yet it’s unclear whether the Trump administration will continue to target the Syrian government through sporadic military operations, although a Pentagon official described Thursday’s strike as a “one-off”.
Regardless, President Trump has implemented a more muscular Syrian policy since assuming office three months ago, sending more special forces to the country and ordering more frequent and targeted airstrikes. By doing so, Washington runs the risk of getting further drawn into the intractable conflict. If this happens and the US continues to attack Syria’s government, US-Russian relations will deteriorate significantly, potentially leading to skirmishes in Syrian airspace, where both countries are currently operating.
CHEMICAL WEAPONS TO BE USED AGAIN IN SYRIA
There had been talk of a new international inquest into the suspected chemical attack before Thursday’s attack. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem proposed a “non-politicised commission of inquiry” to be headed by the government and based in Damascus.
A similar inquiry was conducted by the UN when the Syrian government was accused of using chemical weapons in 2013. Although the commission did not attribute blame for that attack, it did ultimately result in a deal in which Assad supposedly gave up Syria’s chemical weapons.
Given the apparent failure of these measures and the fact that Assad has already been punished for the alleged chemical attack, there’s limited chance that such a process would work a second time around. This raises the spectre of the continued use of chemical agents in the Syrian battlespace, both by the regime and rebel groups.
Last week White House spokesperson Sean Spicer labelled Bashar al-Assad “a political reality that we have to accept”. On Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to change tack, saying “it would seem there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people”. This is certainly not the first time the world has seen an about-face by the new US president – a similar situation has played out in relation the the new administration’s dithering support for NATO – nor will it be the last.
Such unpredictability has been, and will continue to be, a hallmark of the Trump administration. While this may have some benefits – like keeping adversaries guessing – it also causes considerable unease among US allies.
TRUMP LEVERAGES THE MOVE FOR DOMESTIC POLITICAL PURPOSES
Donald Trump will no doubt utilise Thursday’s strikes to lambast former President Barack Obama, who infamously walked away from a pledge to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons in 2013.
With this story expected to dominate headlines for days to come, the White House will also use it to divert attention from ongoing investigations into Trump’s campaign links to Russian intelligence officials and businessmen. While this may provide the president with a temporary reprieve from public scrutiny, it won’t last.