by Yasmine El-Geressi
Donald Trump ordered the first direct U.S assault on the Syrian government forces on April 6 in retaliation for Assad’s use of Sarin gas on civilians that killed approximately 100 civilians. The missile strikes drew support from both Democrats and Republicans who felt that Assad’s use of chemical weapons warrants intervention. The surprise action marked a striking U-turn for Trump who warned as a candidate against the U.S. getting involved in the Syrian civil war.
Majalla spoke to David Schenker, the Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute who previously served as the Pentagon’s top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant, to get a clearer idea of the impacts of the strikes conducted by the U.S. in Syria.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said there is no change to America’s policy on Syria. Does that mean that this a one-off use of force to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again, or does this represent a dramatic change in administration policy?
US Syria policy is evolving. It’s unclear at this point that the Trump Administration has a foreign policy doctrine, or a coherent approach to Syria that goes beyond fighting IS. The Administration’s articulated rationale for the cruise missile strike was to reinforce a longstanding international norm against the use of chemical weapons. Based on the Administration’s stated priorities, the strike does not necessarily imply a change in US policy. Indeed, although Administration officials are now saying that the Assad regime should not be part of Syria’s future there is no indication that the US will adopt a concerted policy effort of regime change.
What impact will the strikes have on the Assad regime and on the ground in Syria?
According to the US Department of Defense, along with the destruction of aircraft, the infrastructure of Shayrat AF Base was significantly degraded. Assad’s airforce was already depleted, so this makes things more difficult for the regime. It may also undermine the morale of pro-regime forces.
What do you think the strikes are going to accomplish?
Given how few ground forces the regime has and the regime’s stated intent to retake all of Syrian territory, I think Asad sees chemical weapons as an effective battlefield tool. Hopefully, this strike will make Asad think twice before he again deploys chemical weapons against his own people.
Of course, Assad has been incredibly reckless since coming to power. He lied to then Secretary of state Colin Powell in 2002, helped flood Iraq with jihadis (and kill Americans) from 2003-2008, and has continuously provoked the Israelis. It’s not clear that Assad will heed this message.
How do you expect Russia will react and has Washington struck a significant blow to Russian-American relations?
Russia, like Washington, is not looking for an escalation or a further deterioration of relations because of Syria. The revelation that Moscow was aware if not complicit in the chemical attacks is a problem. But the US strike will not necessarily prove a long-term bi-lateral irritant. There are so many other bigger endemic problems in the relationship.
Trump reportedly did not receive Congressional approval. Does this mean the U.S strikes were unconstitutional?
There is an ongoing debate about what kind of authorization is required and under what authorities a president can launch military operations. The Republican-controlled congress appears ready to give the president some leeway on these actions. If the bombings become routine, however, or if troop deployments beyond the focus on Raqqa occur, Congress will no doubt want to be more involved.
When Assad used chemical weapons in 2013 Obama decided against military action. How are the circumstances different today?
The circumstances are vastly different and more complicated today. Since 2013, IS has emerged as a significant force in Syria, the Russians have deployed to defend the Assad regime. More importantly, (with Russia’s help), the Assad regime has over the past two years essentially reversed the course of the war. Assad was losing when the Russians got involved. Today, it looks like Assad is here to stay.
Had the US taken military action back in 2013, it could have had a real impact on developments on the ground in Syria—it might have also deterred future CW use. Most importantly, though, it might have prevented the erosion of US credibility in the region.
What do the US strikes mean for the Syrian Opposition and how have they reacted?
The opposition was very pleased with the US strikes. It’s unclear how pleased the opposition will be, however, if the Trump Administration does not sustain the pressure, does not react to other Assad regime atrocities, and if Washington doesn’t start to help the opposition hold its own at the Russian-led peace talks.
How do you expect Iran will react?
Iran is concerned that this may be the beginning of a more robust US approach to countering Iranian regionally destabilizing behavior. If the Syria attacks are followed up by a more aggressive US defensive posture in the Gulf and/or Bab al Mandab, this might constitute the outlines of a new US policy on Iran. I would not expect Iran to react well to a change in the rather passive US posture of the past Administration. As always, Tehran will look to challenge and test the mettle and commitment of Washington to its traditional regional allies.
What should people be looking out for in the coming days which could indicate where the situation is heading?
It will be interesting to see if Assad escalates, say by employing more conventional weapons like barrel bombs against his civilian opponents in Syria. The regime’s barrel bombs are also war crimes—and responsible for most of the deaths and refugee flows in Syria–but have not until now spurred an international response.