Syrian rebels cheer US strike but expect little impact
Opposition disappointed by failure of US to act earlier celebrates sense of delayed justice
Syrian rebel fighters in Teshreen neighbourhood on the outskirts of Damascus on April 1st. Rebels have welcomed the US missile strike on a Syrian army air base. Photograph: Mohammed Badra/EPA
After six years of war and constant bombardment by government warplanes, Syrians in the opposition were jubilant at the news that US missiles had struck an army air base.
On social media, some posted pictures of US president Donald Trump with the words “we love you” written below – a tongue-in-cheek reference to Bashar al-Assad loyalists, who often carry pictures of the Syrian leader emblazoned with the same phrase.
But even among those who cheered the strikes on Shayrat air base, few believe that the Trump administration’s military action shows a willingness for deeper intervention in the conflict. Nor are they hopeful that it signals any tilt in the balance of power that favours the Assad regime, which enjoys military support from Russia, Iran and foreign Shia militias.
“It was a blessed step, something we’ve been hoping for through six years of war – for Assad to taste punishment for his crimes. But ultimately, I think this was just saving face,” said Hassan Hamadeh, a Syrian air force pilot who defected and now heads the US-backed Division 101 rebel group. “This wasn’t enough to have a major military impact against the regime.”
Indeed, the US secretary of state Rex Tillerson was quick to caution that the missile strikes, launched in response to a suspected regime gas attack in northern Syria that killed more than 80 people, should not be seen as shift in the Trump administration’s policy.
“I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today,” he said.
Mr Tillerson, however, suggested that Washington may look to get more involved in the stalled peace talks, at which Russia has assumed the pivotal role.
“We will start a political process to resolve Syria’s future,” he said. “And that ultimately will lead to a resolution of Bashar al-Assad’s departure.”
Mr Trump had previously said his priority in Syria would be fighting Islamic State, the terror group also known as Isis. But after the gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun he said his “attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much”.
Yet the peace process, which the Obama administration heavily invested in without success, is faltering and has made little progress. And rebel groups, severely weakened by the December loss of their last urban stronghold Aleppo, have fragmented into a hopeless jumble.
The Syrian government described the attack on Shayrat, one of the county’s largest air bases, as an act of “blatant aggression”. The air strikes killed at least seven people. But there was no sense of panic.
“This isn’t a declaration of war,” said Qandil Nasr, a Lebanese politician close to the Syrian regime. “Everything about this strike was meant to indicate that they do not want to escalate [the situation]Diplomats in the region were also scrambling to understand what the missile attack means for US policy. “It’s all guess work – we just have no idea,” said one western diplomat.
Another said he was concerned about unexpected retaliation by groups sympathetic to Mr Assad. “In Iraq you have Iranian-backed militias that could easily attack US forces or even the embassy in Baghdad, ” he said. “Do they think about that?”
Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the Trump administration was “still all over the place” in terms of its Syria strategy.
“The only way to keep this contained is to invest in the diplomacy that Trump has been absent from so far,” he said. “Trump is going to need momentum on the political track, otherwise there will always be expectations that he will bomb things again, and he will quickly learn the limits of a military-only strategy.”
Still, for the Syrian opposition, the strikes provide a sense of delayed justice. Four years ago, former US president Barack Obama backtracked from his own declared “red line” after a suspected sarin gas attack that killed 1,400 people.
Some rebels argue that the potential benefits of the US strikes could be real. An army officer who defected while deployed at Shayrat during the war described the air base as a “nerve centre” of operations against the rebels. He said it hosted 40 to 45 aircraft, including Sukhoi Su-22s, MiG-23s, and Sukhoi Su-24s.
With many other bases that could be used against rebels in the north out of commission, he said the regime bombing raids would likely be slowed even if few of the aircraft were destroyed.
“Will it help the rebels win the war? No. But it might give civilians some much needed relief,” he said. “And now, there is a red line.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017