The United States has targeted a military airfield belonging to Assad regime in Syria with nearly 60 Tomahawk missiles, bringing mixed emotions to the Syrian opposition who waited for such a move for long but were disappointed by the US unclear policy.
In a sharp escalation of the U.S. military role in Syria, two U.S. warships fired dozens of cruise missiles from the eastern Mediterranean Sea at the airbase controlled by Assad regime forces in response to the deadly poison gas attack in a rebel-held area on Tuesday, U.S. officials said.
Fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles were launched from the USS Porter and USS Ross around 8:40 p.m. EDT, striking multiple targets – including the airstrip, aircraft and fuel stations – on the Shayrat Air Base, which the Pentagon says was used to store chemical weapons.
The Pentagon also said it believes the strike has “severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure”.
The U.S. cruise missile attack was a “one-off,” a U.S. defense official told Reuters, meaning it was expected to be a single strike with no current plans for escalation.
Trump ordered the strikes just a day after he pointed the finger at Assad for this week’s chemical attack.
“Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.”
“It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”
“There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the chemical weapons convention, and ignored the urging of the UN security council.”
“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behaviour have all failed and failed very dramatically,” Trump said on Thursday.
How did the Syrian opposition view Trump’s move?
The Syrian opposition has long criticized the US for failing to protect rebel-held areas from government air strikes, demanding the creation of a no-fly zone or the provision of anti-aircraft weapons to rebel groups.
Several leaders of armed opposition groups demanded the US do more to hinder the Syrian army’s abilities.
“One airbase is not enough. There are 26 airbases that target civilians,” tweeted Mohammad Alloush, a senior rebel official.
Many were skeptical that the Trump administration had the interests of the Syrian people in mind. Some drew a contrast with the Obama administration, saying that as a minimum Donald Trump’s instability would change the status quo.
“Trump is better for Syria than Hillary [Clinton] because he’s honest and insane,” said one rebel fighter in Syria. “Any loss for the regime in whatever shape is a win for us, but of course Trump acted based on the interests of America and not because he loves us.”
Another rebel commander in Idlib province said further crippling of the government’s air force would be needed to quell attacks on civilians and limit the displacement of Syrians fleeing the fighting in the country.
“The matter needs to be followed up because one attack won’t stop the massacres and the displacement,” he said. “America is the most powerful country in the world and it can think and act faster than others and we look forward to the day when this bloodbath ends.”
The opposition Free Syrian Army welcomed the US airstrikes, saying it ought to be a first step in the international community taking up its responsibility to protect civilian lives and to combat impunity.
“We see this strike as the correct starting point in confronting terrorism, violence, and criminality and finding a just political solution that satisfies all Syrians,” it said in a statement.
“We urge the United States and the friends of the Syrian people to stand clearly against the war criminals in the Syrian regime, to put an end to their violations and to then bring them to justice for their crimes against Syrians and humanity.”
“Part of a bigger strategy”
The political opposition bloc, the Syrian National Coalition, said: “The American strike is a clear message to the regime and its supporters that impunity is over and the international community can overcome the Russian attitude of disabling the [UN] security council as an institution responsible for international peace.”
“We welcome these strikes,” Najib Ghadbian, special representative of the Syrian National Coalition to the United States and the United Nations, said.
“They are first good steps but we would like them to be part of a bigger strategy that would put an end to the mass killing, an end to impunity and eventually we hope that they will lead to a kind of a political transition [in Syria].”
Ghadbian hailed what he described as a change of policy by the new US administration under President Donald Trump.
“What was lacking in the whole thing was a US leadership to counterbalance the two powers that were providing support to Assad: Russia and Iran,” Ghabdian said.
“This could really be the opportunity to end the war – the previous [US] administration, by taking away the military option, emboldened both Russia and Iran. I think this has ended today.”
Strikes must continue
“We hope for the continuation of the strikes in order to prevent the regime from using its planes to launch any new air raids or going back to using internationally banned weapons,” said Ahmad Ramadan, head of the media office of the Syrian National Coalition political opposition group.
“The airbase targeted by the U.S. strike was used to kill Syrians,” Ramadan said. The U.S. attack “sends a clear message to the regime and its backers” that they can no longer avoid repercussions, Ramadan said.
Nasr al-Hariri, chief negotiator of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said on Twitter that the strikes “in case they continue, would kick off a correct start in combatting terrorism”.
George Sabra, a prominent opposition politician, told al-Hadath TV: “The truth is that militarily, if it is limited to this strike, then it has no meaning.”
Mirna Barq, the President of the Syrian American Council said in a statement Friday, “Unless President Trump translates his outrage about the killings into military action, Assad will carry out more attacks against innocent Syrian civilians including nerve gas attacks. It is, therefore, critical and urgent that the U.S. strike regime military airports and fighter jets so that Assad will be unable to perpetrate such crimes again.”
Following the chemical attack, the Council on American-Islamic Relations urged Trump to establish safe zones, stating prior to the U.S. missile strikes, “Instead of acquiescing to the actions of a regime that murders and tortures its own people, we must help the Syrian people replace that regime with a representative government that ensures freedom and democracy.”
“Developing a schizophrenia”
An aid worker in Hatay in Turkey said: “We Syrians have developed schizophrenia and we don’t know how to express our feelings anymore because they’re always so mixed.
“You find people happy because the regime is being hit but at the same time sadness because you know these are the Americans who let down the Syrian people for more than six years. These feelings are not just directed at America but at the whole world.”
Adham Sahloul, a Syrian American aid worker in Turkey, said he believed the US airstrikes would help save lives by deterring Assad and making a political solution more likely.
“Assad would have never stopped bombing civilian areas and using unconventional weapons without accountability and enforcement of international law,” he said.
“Red lines are drawn for a reason, and these laws and standards are papier-mache without the threat of force to back them up. We may have re-established deterrence and military credibility overnight.”
The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.