The United States launched its first air strikes against forces backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the country’s civil war began six years ago, in retaliation for a chemical-weapons attack that killed more than 80 civilian men, women and children. Elie Abouaoun, who is director of Middle East and North Africa programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace and is based in the region, examines the strategic implications, and USIP President Nancy Lindborg, who has worked for nearly 30 years on humanitarian crises and areas affected by conflict, comments on the factors that prompted the U.S. attack.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea, April 7, 2017.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams/Released

The American strikes with 59 Tomahawk missiles targeted Syrian aircraft, air defense systems, equipment and infrastructure at Shayrat Airfield in western Syria, the base in Homs Province where the planes responsible for this week’s chemical attack in Idlib are believed to have originated. The Russian military, which has backed Assad’s forces in the war, received advance warning of the U.S. air strikes, the Washington Post reported, citing American officials. Russia ostensibly joined the war to assist in the battle against the ISIS extremist group, which is among myriad discordant forces fighting to oust Assad and seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate across northern Syria and Iraq. But Russia’s operations frequently have hit opponents of Assad considered to be more moderate.

Were these U.S. strikes necessary?

Lindborg: These targeted air strikes were an appropriate response to the unacceptable war crime of using sarin gas on your own people, which is just the latest of a long list of war crimes the Assad regime has perpetrated against the people of Syria. We have limited international tools to stop this level of violence used by a state against its own people. Nothing to date has been effective, especially with the obstructionist role of Russia in the Security Council, where it has repeatedly denied years of barrel bombing, starvation or targeting of health clinics and medical personnel by the Assad regime or even the suffering and humanitarian need that the attacks have generated.

What is the likely effect of the U.S. strikes on Assad and the opposition forces fighting to oust him?

Lindborg: One strike will not solve the wickedly complex conflict of Syria, with multiple terror groups, regional actors with a web of conflicting interests and an utterly destroyed country with nearly half its people displaced.  The biggest question is what's next and next and then what.

Abouaoun: If the U.S. military attack is limited to launching 59 missiles, it is not likely to change the course of the conflict, at least not in the short term. It could improve the morale of the anti-Assad forces, but they are not likely to become any more united than they have been, unless the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia agree on a joint strategy to support them, leading to enough pressure on Assad to change his behavior or force him to negotiate more seriously. 

What would it take for Turkey and the United States to mend their strained relationship to cooperate more on Syria?

Abouaoun: The U.S. would have to persuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to halt his sprint towards the Russians and restore Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. That includes assuring Erdogan that Turkey will be able to influence Syria’s political transition and benefit economically from its reconstruction. He also would want a role in security arrangements in northern Syria. That includes guarantees that Syria’s Kurds, whom he sees as aligned with the Kurdish PKK militant group in Turkey and who have been among the best fighting forces in Syria against Assad, won’t be allowed to establish a mini-state on his border.  

How are the Russians likely to respond to the U.S. strikes in Syria?

Abouaoun: The Russians need to understand that the space they had to maneuver under President Obama has shrunk and that it is, therefore, time to bargain. But they also want certain guarantees, such as that Assad and his family will not to be killed like Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi or imprisoned, as in the case of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. The Russians want continued control of their Mediterranean naval base in Syria and, like Turkey, to ensure they can influence Syria’s political transition and benefit from the country’s reconstruction.

What reaction might we see from Iran to the U.S. strikes?

Abouaoun: The Iranians are known for their strategic patience. They are fairly unlikely to strike back against the U.S. directly outside of Syria. Iran has a clear agenda in Syria that goes beyond preserving the person or the regime of Assad. It is about access to parts of Syria.

How committed are the Iranians to backing Assad?

Abouaoun: Iran remains the major obstacle to Assad’s removal, contributing thousands of military advisors and support for pro-Assad militias such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi militias. Iran’s primary objective is to make sure any regime in Syria either accommodates the Iranian agenda or is too weak to thwart it.

Related Publications

What is Next for U.S.-Turkey Relations?

What is Next for U.S.-Turkey Relations?

Friday, April 20, 2018

By: Eric S. Edelman

Relations between the United States and Turkey have come under increasing strain in the past two years over the U.S. role in Syria and Ankara’s strengthening ties with Russia. American support for Kurdish forces battling ISIS has angered Turkey, which sees the cooperation as bolstering Kurdish nationalist elements inside its borders. USIP Board member Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey during the George W. Bush administration, and USIP International Advisory Council member Jake Sullivan, who served as Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, provide some insight on the state of Turkish-American relations.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

Osama Gharizi on U.S. Objectives in Syria

Osama Gharizi on U.S. Objectives in Syria

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

By: Osama Gharizi

From Lebanon, Osama Gharizi shares his analysis about the clarity of U.S. objectives after retaliatory missile strikes targeting the Assad regime’s suspected chemical weapons facilities. Gharizi says these strikes sent a signal to Assad and his allies that there are limits to U.S. and coalition intervention in Syria. In turn, these limits strengthen Russia, Turkey, and Iran’s roles as the diplomatic arbiters to negotiate a peace deal. Separately, Gharizi addresses the risks associated with the suggestion of setting up an Arab force in Syria that could create further obscurity in terms of U.S. intent and objectives versus those of Arab countries forming such a force.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Civilian-Military Relations

Q&A: After Airstrikes, What’s Next for the U.S. in Syria?

Q&A: After Airstrikes, What’s Next for the U.S. in Syria?

Monday, April 16, 2018

By: USIP Staff; Mona Yacoubian

On Friday evening, the United States, together with Britain and France, launched a joint military operation in response to the Syrian regime’s April 7 chemical weapons attack on Douma. The Douma attack left more than 40 civilians dead and several hundred experiencing symptoms of exposure to toxic chemicals. The coordinated airstrikes hit three targets associated with Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure: a scientific research center, a chemical weapons production facility, and a chemical weapons storage area. Around this time last year in April 2017, the Trump administration launched a unilateral cruise missile strike on the Shayrat airfield following a sarin attack by the Syrian regime on the town of Khan Shaykhoun, which killed more than 90 civilians. U.S. Institute of Peace Senior Advisor for Syria Mona Yacoubian provides some insight into the airstrikes and the challenges that lie ahead.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Global Policy

Mike Yaffe on Iraq and Syria Event

Mike Yaffe on Iraq and Syria Event

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

By: Michael Yaffe

Following USIP’s event “Iraq and Syria: Views from the U.S. Administration, Military Leaders and the Region,” Mike Yaffe provides key takeaways from the panel featuring CENTCOM Commander General Votel, USAID Administrator Green, and Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS McGurk. "Iraq and Syria are complex and starkly different from one another," says Yaffe, "but the key goals are the same: concentrate on defeating ISIS and work by, with, and through local people to stabilize each country."

Violent Extremism; Democracy & Governance

View All Publications