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ANALYSIS

Syria strike escalates tensions with Russia

U.S. warships launched dozens of cruise missiles against a Syrian government-controlled air base Thursday, April 6, 2017, in a major retaliatory strike against Syrian president Bashar Assad for chemical attacks against scores of civilians earlier this week.

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 7, 2017

President Donald Trump’s speedy decision to attack a Syrian air base Thursday has ratcheted up tensions with Russia and could risk a broader escalation with Moscow should the White House embark upon a bigger campaign against the Syrian government, analysts say.

Already on Friday, Moscow ordered that air defenses in Syria be bolstered, and it dispatched a warship bound for Russia’s port off Syria’s coast.

Just two days after the U.S. accused Syrian government forces of using sarin gas in an attack on civilians, Trump hit a Syrian airbase also used by Russian forces with more than 50 sea-launched Tomahawk missiles.

The U.S. gave advanced warning to Moscow, and no Russia troops were killed, but the move nonetheless prompted an angry response from Moscow, which has threatened to cut off military lines of communication in Syria.

The question now is whether the Trump administration will follow up its attack with a more aggressive stance against Bashar Assad or restrict its military action to Thursday’s flurry of Tomahawk strikes.

“Immediate strikes do not preclude a more robust strategy. In fact, they open the door to it,” said Jennifer Cafarella, a security analyst with the Institute for the Study of War.

Some hawkish members of Congress are already calling on the Trump administration to broaden its Syria mission, with Sen. John McCain, R-Az., advocating that U.S. forces take out the Syrian air force.

Still, the U.S. Navy’s launching of missiles from the Rota, Spain-based guided missile destroyers USS Ross and USS Porter in the Mediterranean Sea may not signal an immediate  broader shift in Syrian strategy, some analysts say.

“The decision to strike only one air base signals that the attack is merely a warning and not intended to be the opening salvo in a major intervention,” wrote STRATFOR, a Texas-based security firm. “Moreover, that the U.S. missiles targeted the air base, rather than Syrian surface-to-air missile sites, indicates the strikes were not preparation for larger fixed-wing airstrikes.”

Since Russia’s intervention in Syria, the U.S. has worked to avoid tangling with Russia, whose primary mission has been to stabilize the Assad regime. While the U.S. has long called for Assad’s removal, its lack of direct action against the government has been viewed as a tacit acknowledgement that Syria’s strongman was unlikely to be going anywhere.

But the airstrikes against Assad now put the U.S. and Russia in direct confrontation. Trump has effectively cast aside his past proclamations about wanting to collaborate with Russian President Vladimir Putin on problems such as Syria, where both countries are fighting the Islamic State group.

Ahead of authorizing the strikes, Trump said Assad crossed “many, many lines” with its chemical weapons attack.

Damascus has denied using the banned weapons and has blamed opposition fighters for storing the chemicals in munitions depots that were hit by Syrian aircraft.

Russia has called for an investigation into the matter. It has also suspended an accord that prevents close encounters between U.S. and Russian warplanes over Syria.

The speed of Trump’s decision contrasts sharply with the unenforced “red line” drawn by former President Barack Obama, who warned of consequences if Syria used chemical agents but didn’t follow through when Damascus was blamed for a chemical weapons attack in 2013.

Critics argued Obama’s passivity in Syria opened the door to Russia’s eventual intervention in the country.

Trump, in a 2013 tweet, also opposed airstrikes.

“President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside,” Trump tweeted.

The unilateral U.S. strikes were backed Friday by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who said “any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, cannot go unanswered, and those responsible must be held accountable.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com
Twitter: @john_vandiver

 

The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea, Friday, April 7, 2017. Porter, forward-deployed to Rota, Spain, is conducting naval operations in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe.
FORD WILLIAMS/U.S. NAVY

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