Adding fuel to the fire in Syria

Saturday, 2017-04-08 10:24:47
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US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations, which US Defence Department said, was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017. Ford Williams/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS
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NDO – Early on the morning of April 7, from its warships USS Porter and USS Ross in the Mediterranean Sea, the US launched dozens of Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat air base near the central city of Homs, Syria. This is the biggest substantial escalation of the US military over the past six years of the Syrian civil war, which may pose potential risk of exacerbating tensions in the region while threatening to completely shatter all efforts to seek a political solution to the crisis in this Middle Eastern country.

The Pentagon has directly carried out attacks targeting Syrian military. A total of 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) targeted aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defence systems, and radars at the Shayrat air base. The US announced that the strike was in response to a chemical weapons attack in Idlib, which claimed the lives of dozens of ordinary Syrian people; although there has been no confirmation as to which side in the Syrian war carried out the attack.

US President Donald Trump ordered the military strike, saying that it is in the vital national security interest of the US to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.

However, the US military action has faced strong opposition from the Syrian Government. Damascus called this an "act of aggression" and said the attack has caused casualties to Syrian officers and soldiers. Although US defence officials announced that they have no clear plans for a military escalation in Syria, and the missile strike carried no sign of shifting in President Trump's priority policy, the unexpected military intervention by the US has intensified tensions in Syria, and increased the risk of a direct confrontation among powers involved in the ongoing conflict in Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin described the US airstrikes on Syria as "an act of aggression against a sovereign state," according to a Kremlin statement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called it "an act of aggression under a completely invented pretext", saying that everything resembled the situation in 2003, when the US led an invasion in Iraq. Russia said it believed Syria had destroyed all its chemical weapons since the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that all the chemical weapons Syria had officially acknowledged of possessing were destroyed in 2013. Kremlin also said that the missile strike "dealt a serious blow to Russia-US relations," and posed a huge obstacle for the establishment of an international coalition to fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Iran also sharply criticised US missile strikes on a Syrian airfield.

Contrary to the opposition from Russia and Iraq, the surprise US missile strikes in Syria have been broadly supported by European countries so far. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the US bombing was a warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, said the “Australian government strongly supports the swift and just response of the United States.” Syrian National Coalition welcomed US cruise missile strikes, and demanded the US do more to hinder the Syrian army's abilities.

The US’s act of military escalation took place at a time when Russia and the US, which have supported two different rival parties in Syria, are in strong disagreement on the chemical weapons attack on April 4, which caused the death of over 80 people and affected hundreds more. While Syrian government and rebel forces are accusing each other on using chemical weapons, the tragic images of victims of the attack have prompted the international community to voice their opposition and prevent brutal killings of innocent civilians.

Syria badly needs a political solution. Any military escalation is an act of "adding fuel to the fire", which could even trigger a military confrontation between powers who are supporting parties in Syria, and push the Middle East on the brink of peril.