Wed, Apr 12, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Al-Assad could see US strike as a ‘slap on the wrist’

Opponents of the Syrian government are calling on the US to follow through on last week’s airstrike, while President Bashar al-Assad seems undeterred in his course

By Tom Perry and Laila Bassam  /  Reuters, BEIRUT

Illustration: Mountain People

AUS cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base might persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to be more cautious with some of his tactics, but will not deter him and his allies from pressing a full-throttle military campaign to crush rebels.

It was the first time Washington has directly targeted al-Assad’s government in six years of civil war and has pushed the administration of US President Donald Trump into proclaiming that Washington still wants al-Assad removed from power.

However, the single volley of Tomahawk missiles was of such limited scope that it will reinforce the view held by Damascus and its allies that the US is no more eager than before to take the sort of strong action needed to defeat him.

“[Al-]Assad now knows there is a red line with regard to the use of chemical weapons, but I think he also probably just sees it as a slap on the wrist,” said David Lesch, professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and an author on Syria.

“[Al-]Assad has to recalibrate, but not fundamentally change his military approach that they’ve been engaging in since the Russian intervention,” Lesch said. “I really believe they are not feeling too bad today, if this is the extent of what the US is going to do.”

Damascus denies carrying out the chemical attack that provoked the US response.

The attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held province of Idlib near the Turkish border killed at least 87 people, 31 of them children.

Al-Assad has responded with characteristic defiance, vowing to accelerate efforts to wipe out rebels he calls terrorists.

A joint command center representing his Russian, Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies said the US attack would only cause them to redouble their support for the Syrian government.

Airstrikes have continued unabated since the US attack on Friday. Eighteen people were reportedly killed in one strike alone in Idlib on Saturday. Though damaged, the Shayrat air base near Homs is partly operational and flights have taken off.

The base was largely evacuated before the US strikes, after Washington forewarned Moscow, which in turn alerted the Syrian government, according to a senior military source in the alliance fighting in support of al-Assad.

Describing the US attack as a “limited strike” that was quickly over, another senior ally of al-Assad in the region said toppling him did not seem to be a priority for Trump.

“There is still no clear American policy on Syria,” the ally said.

Although the attack had shown Trump to be unpredictable, a third official in the pro-al-Assad alliance did not yet see a major shift in the US’ approach.

“Is this a strategic shift by the Americans? Do they want to get into a big problem with the Russians? I don’t think there is a strategic shift,” the official said.

Washington says it acted because Syrian aircraft bombed Khan Sheikhoun with sarin, a banned nerve agent that Damascus pledged to give up in 2013 after then-US president Barack Obama threatened to bomb as punishment for another alleged gas attack.

Moscow and Damascus say the deaths were the result of a Syrian airstrike on a depot where rebels were making chemical weapons that then leaked into the town — a claim rebels deny and Washington dismisses as beyond credibility.

The attack marked a departure from the approach of Obama, who ran a large-scale air campaign in Syria against fighters from the Islamic State group, but avoided direct entanglement in the parallel civil war to unseat al-Assad.

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