Airstrikes against Syria, Put Simply

By Campaign Agent Marykate Monaghan

The International System waited with bated breathe over the weekend, as a number of events escalated the situation in Syria. On the 7th April, images emerged of a suspected chemical attack in the Douma region of the country. Combined with the aggressive rhetoric employed on Trump’s twitter feed, this lead to the US, UK and France performing airstrikes against the state on the 15th April, provoking widespread debate. Thus, this article will explore the key motives behind the airstrikes, and how the international community and domestic actors within the states involved have responded to the operation.

What influenced the US, UK and France’s decision to pursue Air Strikes against Syria? 

The suspected use of chemical weapons acted as the main influence in determining the US, UK and France’s decision to perform Air Strikes against Syria. French President Macron argued the operation was necessary to signal that chemical attacks would not be tolerated under any circumstance. This reaffirms a general prohibition within the international system against the use of chemical weapons. 

Similarly, President Trump’s tweet published last Wednesday outlined the need to use force against President Assad’s use of chemical attacks against his own people within the Syrian Civil War, describing him as a “Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it.” The tweet’s focus on Russia’s support for the Assad Regime hints that the US may have intended to condemn states who are assisting the Syrian regime; “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming.” The same emphasis was expressed within Prime Minister Theresa May’s statement to the UK Parliament, outlining how the action intended to “uphold and defend the global consensus that these weapons should not be used”. The PM also stated the need to prevent any “further humanitarian suffering” occurring within the regime, using the Air Strikes to significantly hinder Assad’s ability to produce and use chemical weapons through damaging facilities used to store the materials and resources. 

Evidently, the military action was symbolic as well as pragmatic- emphasising the distinct lack of tolerance towards the use of chemical weapons within the international community. 

What has the response been from the International Community? 

It would be fair to say that the Air Strikes authorised against Syria have drawn mixed responses from the International Community. Interestingly, many political leaders who decided to abstain from the operation have voiced their support for the military action. For instance, whilst Germany restrained from taking part in the Air Strikes, German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the action taken by the US, UK and France, stating it was the “necessary and appropriate” response to deter the Syrian government from any further use of chemical weapons. Similarly, the Turkish foreign ministry outlined the state’s support for the completed operation by highlighting how the action taken had “eased humanity’s conscience” through responding to such an atrocity. 

In contrast, Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei has voiced his disapproval of the military action, claiming the aggression exhibited by the US, UK and France was a violation of international law. Likewise, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin condemned the operation, describing the strikes as “an aggressive action.” 

The range of responses highlights the palpable tension within the International Community as a consequence of the situation in Syria. 

What has the domestic response been like within the participating states? 

US:

Interestingly, in the US, negative responses have emerged as a result of President Trump’s decision to act without congressional approval. For instance, the lack of debate or vote surrounding the decision taken has led many within the Democratic Party, and even some Republicans, to denounce the action-  labelling it as illegal. Despite this, many key Republicans within the Senate have praised Trump’s action; Speaker Paul Ryan claimed the “decisive action” was critical in outlining to Assad’s regime that the suspected brutality against civilians would not be tolerated. This support was also displayed as the military action was applauded by Republicans late on Friday night after the Air Strikes had been completed. However, key figures within the Democratic Party have criticized the use of Air Strikes by claiming the action is too limited. For instance, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi claimed that the “one night of airstrikes” failed to constitute a clear, comprehensive strategy.

The President’s decision to bypass Congress may also have repercussions in the form of increasing the already heightened tension within his Cabinet. This follows reports that the US’ Defence Secretary James Mattis had urged the President to seek approval from Congress before taking any decisive action. Thus, Trump’s decision to ignore the advice of his Defence Secretary may lead to further clashes between the two figures, especially as the tension between the two heightened earlier this month after the President’s decision to fire Rex Tillerson, removing Mattis’ key ally within the Cabinet. This outlines the domestic consequences resulting from the US’ decision to seek airstrikes without congressional approval, as tension has heightened within both Congress and the White House as a result.  

UK:

Similarly, Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to act without the consent of Parliament has provoked large scale criticism. This is reinforced by the criticism expressed by Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, who stated that the UK’s foreign policy “should be set by Parliament” not by the President of the US. Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Labour Party, criticized the military action by claiming it lacked legitimacy, as no evidence has yet been collected to suggest that the Syrian government was fully responsible for the suspected chemical attack that took place. This strengthens Corbyn’s other criticism that the military action taken was legally questionable given the lack of evidence or investigation surrounding the suspected use of chemical weapons. Likewise, the use of force to condemn the suspected use of chemical weapons has been criticised by Corbyn, arguing the use of force will serve to escalate the chance of further risks in the region, as opposed to advancing the pursuit for peace. 

Yet, the Labour Leader has been condemned by his own MPs for voicing his disapproval of the government during the Commons debate on Monday. For instance, Mike Gapes, MP for Ilford South, highlighted the “long-standing and noble tradition” held within the Labour Party to support humanitarian interventions and to uphold the responsibility to protect. This countered Corbyn’s opposition to the military action taken by May, as it reaffirmed the need for the UK to act to respond to prevent any more chemical attacks by the Syrian Government, preventing further horrendous violations of Human Rights. This outlines the division within the UK, as while some were supportive of the action taken by the Prime Minister in terms of condemning and preventing further chemical attacks by the Syrian Government, others held doubts surrounding the efficiency and legitimacy of the airstrikes taken. Moreover, May’s decision to hold a debate surrounding the UK’s involvement in Syria after the proposed airstrikes had taken place has been seen as problematic by many both within and outside of her party, highlighting yet another source of controversy.

France:

Interestingly, the Air Strikes completed over the weekend have sparked intense debate within France. Representatives from both ends of the political spectrum have voiced their disapproval of President Macron’s decision to take part. For instance, Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, outlined the “unforeseen and … dramatic consequences” that might follow from the rash decision taken to assist the US-led Air Strikes Operation. Likewise, Jean-Luc Melenchon, a representative from the left-wing party La France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France), denounced the action-  highlighting how the Air Strikes have formed a catalyst for a further, “irresponsible escalation” of the situation within Syria. However, many members of Macron’s ruling Centrist party, La Republique en Marche, backed their leader in his decision. For instance, the head of the Party, Christophe Castaner, reaffirmed the necessity for action to take place to prevent more lives being lost from further chemical attacks and to ensure France would not behave “blind and dumb” to horrific attacks perpetrated by any state against innocent civilians. All this serves to outline the intensity of the debate within France- highlighting the action taken by Macron as being equally divisive, as decisive in practice. 

What has been the immediate impact of the Air Strikes? 

Fascinatingly, the Air Strikes seem to have held more symbolic value than practical impact on the on-going, seven-year civil war in Syria. The 105 missiles launched by the US, UK and France may have destroyed significant chemical weapons research sites in Syria last Saturday, but the impact sustained on the production of chemical weapons is rather minimal. For instance, if, as expected, the chemical weapons use Chlorine, the resources required to make more are relatively cheap- suggesting only a short-term degrading of Assad’s Chemical Weapons Arsenal. Similarly, within 24 hours of the US-led Strikes, more heavy shelling was reported in the Homs and Hama countryside  by Assad’s regime, outlining the President’s ability to use alternative weapons to continue the conflict. Thus, the impact of the Air Strikes is arguably limited, suggesting symbolic value, through condemning the use of chemical weapons, rather than long term impact in preventing the likelihood of future attacks. 

Likewise, the Air Strikes appear to have had minimal impact on shifting President Assad’s approach towards resolving the Syrian Civil War. For instance, Assad released a statement in response to the Military action taken by US, UK, and France, which outlined how the aggression shown had only increased his resolve towards continuing to combat the rebel forces within his own state. This crushes any justification the states’ may have felt in terms of using the action to undermine Assad’s will or strategic thinking to use chemical weapons. Yet, the ability to assess the impact had on the President’s resolve will remain unconfirmed until further developments have taken place in the conflict, as chemical weapons have yet to be used since the attack. However, in terms of the conflict in Syria being resolved peacefully, the airstrikes may have had a negative impact as reinforced by Assad’s statement. The failure to curb his desire to continue the fight against rebel forces even after the military action by the US, UK and France strengthens Putin’s criticism that the air strikes’ have only hampered the chances to formulate a political resolution to the Civil War still on-going, rather than help increase them. Thus, whilst the airstrikes aimed to prevent any further use of chemical weapons, they may ultimately turn out to have been counterproductive- exacerbating Assad’s resolve to fight. 

Significantly, the impact of the air strikes in terms of escalating tension between the US and the other states supporting Assad’s regime in Syria, such as Iran and Russia, has arguably been exaggerated. For example, Russia and Iran are not expected to pursue any form of military retaliation in response to the Air Strikes, as the US, UK and France deliberately avoided targeting or hitting any of the states’ own assets within the region. However, if another attack were to occur in the upcoming weeks, it is questionable as to whether this would remain the case. 

Thus, while the Air Strikes may have been successful in terms of effectively voicing condemnation towards the use of chemical weapons, the true impact of the military action will only be defined by the future developments that occur within Syria. 

Sources and Further Reading


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