Nearly five years after the brutal civil war that has destroyed many cities and uprooted millions from their homes in Syria, the United States struck a Syrian airbase this week for the first time, as a warning to the regime.
The missile strike from US Navy ships in the Mediterranean were targetted at the airbase that was reportedly used by planes of the Assad regime to drop chemical bombs on a town held by rebel forces with horrific results.
The chemical bombs that reportedly carried nerve gas killed scores of people and injured hundreds, including very small children.
The horrible images of death and destruction shocked the entire world, including even President Trump who had dithered during his presidential campaign on the question of helping Syrians in their plight, not to speak of removing President Assad’s brutal regime.
The US position in the current civil war in Syria has been ambivalent at best since the war began. Obama had once pledged to a decisive response to Syrian government actions against its own citizens if it crossed a “red line.”
That red line meant Assad regime taking recourse to the use of chemical weapons, which the regime reportedly had a stock-pile of. Unfortunately Obama’s much-declared threat of use of any deterrent action did not materialise even after proof of use of such deadly weapons by the regime in 2013 to fight the rebels.
There were many reasons why the US did not act on its threat in that period. The most tangible was the reluctance of congress to approve a military action against Syria, an excuse the Obama administration used for not attacking Syria. There were other cogent reasons too, which included the rise of Islamic militancy among some rebel groups (which finally gave birth to IS), and a lack of agreement with Russia as the Russians were among the backers of Assad.
Obama’s reluctance to engage the US in another war in the Middle East by not entering into a military commitment in the Syrian civil war and refraining from more direct attacks on IS was interpreted by his Republican opponents as US withdrawal from leadership.
The Republican presidential candidates, particularly Donald Trump, used every opportunity to deride the Obama presidency, and Trump assured his supporters that if elected he would intervene with military force to strike Islamic militants in Syria and other places.
A change cannot come without either Assad resigning, or some forces physically removing him
As things turned out, President Trump’s agenda in the Middle East got buried in the first few weeks with quite a few fiascos. Principal among these was the failure to enact a new health care policy that he had promised.
But the biggest distraction was, and still is, the FBI investigation into suspicious communication between his staff and Russian officials during and immediately after the presidential election. The Russian connection has already cost Trump one of his first cabinet appointees, Michael Flynn, who resigned three weeks after his appointment as national security officer. The FBI is still continuing its investigation, as is the senate, into the alleged involvement of Russia in manipulating the presidential election campaign.
The US missile strike in Syria comes not only in the backdrop of the horrific nerve gas attack on the civilians by the Assad regime, but also at a time when the media and people in the US are eagerly following the FBI and senate investigation into Russian interference in the US election and its possible nexus with Trump’s campaign staff.
The question now is: How serious is the US response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons on its people? Is it only a one-time show of US disapproval of the incident, or will there be further show of strength to bring down the Assad regime?
During his presidential campaign, Trump had shown no interest in the toppling of the regime -- his opprobrium was against the Islamic militants who he promised he would destroy. In fact, given that Russia, the main backer and ally of the Assad regime, was viewed by Trump as a friend, it would seem odd if Trump were to seek the dislodging of Assad as a goal.
Therefore, everyone following Trump was surprised that he would order a missile strike against Syria, even though this pleased many as a suitable US response. But his action has also raised the logical question of what next.
Experts who have followed the Syrian civil war and its intractability (made more complex with a host of players in it) opine that a single strike of missiles in a Syrian air base is not likely to dislodge Assad from his position. Air strikes and drone attacks over the last two-and-a-half years have not eradicated IS, which is not quite a fully formed state.
In contrast, the current regime in Syria is the legally (by its own constitution) and formally formed government of Syria. It is still fully dominated by Assad and his supporters. The regime may have been decimated, but is still buttressed by overt and covert support from Russia and Iran.
A change cannot come without either Assad resigning, or some forces physically removing him. But the million dollar question is: Who will replace Assad, and will this new regime be able to form a government that offers stability to the country? This quandary cannot be solved without all parties in this war agreeing to a solution.
As it is, Syria as a country has been dismembered and destroyed. Over half of its population has been displaced, and are now seeking shelter all over the world. Its cities are in ruins, and it will take years and billions of dollars to rebuild the country.
It would please the displaced refugees greatly if it took only 59 missiles to change this brutal regime. It will require more than missiles to change the face of Syria and the fate of its people.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.