Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, there has been conclusive evidence that chemical weapons have been used against civilians at different times and locations. The death toll as a result of chemical agents has already exceeded many thousands. In Ghouta, for example, a chemical attack by the al-Assad regime on Aug. 21, 2013 killed almost 1,500 people. After this - the deadliest chemical attack so far - the U.S. and Russia
agreed on a Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons, which was immediately accepted by the regime. The last set of declared Syrian chemical weapons was shipped out of the country for destruction on June 23, 2014.
However, the April 4 attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun once again confirmed that there are still chemical weapons in Syria. The unwillingness of the international community to take action even after the clear use of chemical weapons paved the way for the attack, which killed more than 70 people and affected hundreds more.
But this time, in contrast to former U.S. President Barack Obama - who had declared the use of chemicals a “red line” but eventually decided not to use force - current President Donald Trump ordered a missile attack against al-Shayrat Air Base, where the planes that dropped the chemicals on Khan Shaykhun are based. With the strike, the Trump administration clearly conveyed the message that it will not hesitate to act unilaterally if deemed necessary.
It would be naïve to interpret the U.S. strike in Syria as a substantial policy change, since Trump’s overall Syria policy has not been revealed yet. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated as much, saying the U.S. will stick to its plan to prioritize the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) over regime change in Syria. The latter, nevertheless, gained a renewed international attention due to the U.S. strike.
In addition to the U.S. strike, subsequent criticism by top U.S. officials regarding Russia’s responsibility in the al-Assad regime’s irresponsible use of chemical agents created a backlash in Russia. Although the U.S. informed Russia
prior to the strike through the “deconfliction line,” created in October 2015 to prevent accidents over Syrian airspace, this did not ease the Russian
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that Moscow considers the strikes to be “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law.” Later, Putin threatened to shut down the deconfliction line between the two countries.
While it is too early to tell where the relationship between the two will evolve, President Trump has clearly benefitted from this tension, as it seems to have checked domestic criticism over links between his administration and Russia.
As the U.S. is preparing to launch an offensive on Raqqa, the stronghold of ISIL in Syria, it is important to sustain communication with Russia, which has consolidated its power on the ground after securing the regime with military and diplomatic support. Still, the decision to launch missile strikes in response to use of chemicals heralded the end of U.S. inaction in Syria and reminded all players that the U.S. is still in the game.
What we are not certain of yet is what kind of overall game plan Trump will eventually approve regarding Syria. The strikes do not seem at the moment to be part of a comprehensive plan, but rather a one-time message sent to all concerned.