What's next in Syria after US airstrikes

PHOTO: In a photo released by the Russian state-owned news outlet, Sputnik, the body of the remains of a plane burned following the U.S. missile attack on an air base in Syria, April 7, 2017. PlayMikhail Voskresenskiy/Sputnik via AP
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Just two days after the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad apparently deployed chemical weapons on his own people again, President Trump shocked the world with a swarm of Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian air base.

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The U.S. strike was met with swift condemnation by the Syrian government’s biggest supporter, Russia, which criticized what it called “aggression against a sovereign state in breach of international law … over a made-up pretext.” Syria and Russia deny the regime was responsible.

The tension rising from the ashes in Syria has many people on edge, but it could also open the door to diplomacy, even as the Trump administration announced new sanctions against the regime are coming.

The question on everyone’s mind, however, with no clear answer, is what happens next?

Back to the negotiating table?

Those who supported Trump’s strikes in the United States cheered the show of U.S. military power.

A Wall Street Journal editorial called it “an important first step to save lives, enforce global order, and improve the strategic outlook for the U.S. and its allies.”

Others share that sentiment.

“The strikes have … sent a very important signal to America's friends, its critics, and its enemies,” Anthony H. Cordesman, a longtime former official at the State and Defense departments, blogged for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think-tank in Washington, D.C.

In particular, supporters of such strikes hope that Russia and Assad will take the threat of further military strikes seriously, even if the Trump administration doesn’t plan on any, and return to the negotiating table in a serious way.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “can now walk into negotiations with everyone at the table understanding this president is willing to use force in a way his predecessor was not,” Andrew Exum, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy in the Obama administration, wrote in the Atlantic Friday. “The U.S. hand in negotiations over the fate of Bashar al-Assad is now strengthened.”

Tillerson was already scheduled to travel to Moscow next week to meet with Russian leaders. A senior aide confirms that he will continue the conversation about Assad while he’s there.

Given the increased global pressure and this renewed U.S. focus, Russia may even relinquish its support for the regime and help remove Assad from power, said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Program at the CSIS.

“Russia is looking out for Russia,” he added, but warned against trusting them too much. “One has to be careful because you can seem to have more cooperation with Russia than you do.”

It’s an experience Exum had firsthand, as the United States sought to make a deal with Russia over Aleppo last fall, the last moderate opposition stronghold that Assad and Russia bombed into submission.

“By the end, we were practically begging the Russians to just let humanitarian aid shipments into East Aleppo. As one of the U.S. negotiators, I found the whole experience degrading,” he wrote.

Ultimately, it seems, the nation’s top diplomat trusts the international peace process to bring the 6-year war to an end.

“Through the Geneva process, we will start a political process to resolve Syria's future in terms of its governance structure, and that ultimately, in our view, will lead to a resolution of Bashar al-Assad's departure,” Tillerson told reporters Thursday.

Risking a greater war?

The immediate concern among many skeptics was that striking Assad would lead to war with Russia.

In the immediate aftermath, the Russians announced they were ending the hotline the two countries use to prevent midair collisions. A Russian warship turned to head toward the eastern Mediterranean, where Navy destroyers – the USS Ross and USS Porter -- launched strikes. And Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned on Facebook that Trump was “on the edge of military clashes with Russia.”

But so far, Moscow has not canceled Tillerson’s trip, a sign that it’s still interested in talking.

But the greater threat could be Iran, a key ally of Assad that also criticized the United States for its actions.

“Now that Trump has directly struck and taken out an Assad regime air base, the regime to watch for reaction isn't Russia's, but Iran's,” Iyad el-Baghdadi, a human rights activist and fellow at the Norwegian think-tank Civitas, said. “Iran's regime will up the pressure and will escalate. To Putin, Syria is strategically useful; to Iran's regime, it's existentially important.”

So far, the 900 U.S. troops on the ground have not faced Iran, the many Shiite militia groups it supports, or its ally Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group. But given the attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, the United States has to be mindful, said Melissa Dalton, the deputy director of CSIS’s International Security Program who has had several roles at the Pentagon.

Complicating the fight against ISIS?

Until this week, the United States’ main priority in Syria was the fight against ISIS, and there’s no indication yet from the administration that that has changed. The Global Coalition to Counter ISIS conducted 14 more strikes, just hours after the assault on Assad’s air base.

But there is concern that the attack on the Syrian military, with its formidable air force and Russian air support, could endanger that counterterror mission, according to Dalton and Exum.

It could be “a possible tightening of Syrian air defenses that just make it a bit harder for the United States to do what it needs to do to counter both ISIS and al Qaeda,” Dalton said. Or it could be something more aggressive, like strikes on U.S.-backed rebels, which both Russia and the regime have done before.

At the very least, rattled allies could be more nervous about supporting the coalition or participating in strikes. “America’s coalition partners in Syria and Iraq are all likely much more nervous about what this means for their own forces,” Exum said.

But what does Trump want?

Perhaps the most important question in all of this is what is the goal here? Did Trump want to send a warning shot to Assad, to deter future chemical weapons attack, or did he mean to escalate the situation and push for regime change?

“The president’s most important priorities are not abundantly clear in this conflict,” Alterman, of CSIS, said. “It’s easy to come up with a list of things the United States can do that would affect Syria, but the question you need to ask is what effect are you trying to have on Syria?”

Trump, in a late-night statement Thursday, did link the strikes specifically to the chemical weapons attack. “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” he said.

So will that mean more airstrikes if Assad uses chemical weapons again? Now that Trump has drawn that red line, he will be pressured to.

The administration’s plans for other aspects of the conflict have not been as clear.

After declaring that Assad’s future “will be decided by the Syrian people,” Tillerson said Thursday that there is “no role for him to govern the Syrian people” and that “steps are underway” for the international community to remove him, before saying late Thursday night that “there’s been no change” in their position regarding Syria. And U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced Friday that the administration will roll out new sanctions on the regime, but it’s not apparent whether that’s to cripple the regime or just punish them for the attack.

Even Trump himself in his address Thursday called on “all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types,” without providing details on how or who.