By Michael Cruickshank, @MJ_Cruickshank
Overnight the US Navy launched a Tomahawk cruise missile attack on a Syrian Air Force base in response to the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun earlier this week. Specifically, the attack involved 59 missiles fired from ships in the Mediterranean towards the Shayrat Airbase near, one of the largest in Syria.
Reportedly the missiles caused significant damage to the airbase, which is located near the city of Homs, and destroyed a number of Syrian warplanes. As well, media affiliated with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad reported that 5 civilians were killed in the attack.
According to US officials, this particular airbase was targeted as it is believed to be where the chemical attack was launched from. This chemical attack which killed at least 72 people, was suspected to involve a nerve agent such as Sarin launched by the Syrian Air Force. US military assets had reportedly tracked the aircraft involved in the attack using radar, and traced it back to the airbase struck overnight.
US allies including Australia, the UK, Israel, and Turkey all expressed support for the missile strikes. At the same time, Russia and Iran condemned the strikes, with Russia saying they amounted to “aggression against a sovereign nation”. Notably, Russian forces had been given prior notice of the strikes in an attempt to avoid Russian casualties and prevent further escalation.
While this missile strike represents a significant turnaround of US policy regarding Syria's government, their long-term impact will depend on a number of factors. Practically, the damage to Shayrat Airbase will need to be detailed before an assessment can be made on what level of impact this will have on the depleted Syrian Air Force. As well it will be important to see if the US strike has a deterrent effect on the Syrian Government's bombing campaign against rebel-held areas, or if it will only deepen their resolve. Importantly, however, the strike will likely re-establish 'red lines' abandoned under the Obama Administration regarding the use of chemical weapons.
In the longer term, with the US government now no longer viewing the Assad Government as having a role in the future of Syria, it could increase its support for rebel groups or indeed push for less cooperation between the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian government.