With streaks of light in the pre-dawn dark on Friday, two U.S. Navy destroyers floating in the eastern Mediterranean launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles toward Syria. The missiles sailed through the spring night and slammed into a Syrian military air base in the province of Homs, partly destroying the facility and killing six soldiers, according to the Syrian government. President Donald Trump launched the strike in response to a chemical weapons attack by the government that killed dozens of civilians in Syria’s Idlib province on Tuesday.
The missile strike marks the end of an era of American inaction towards Assad in Syria, where as many as a half million people have died in more than six years of war spawned by a popular insurrection in 2011. It also signals a rupture from the Trump administration’s approach of increasing accommodation with the Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose regime survives in a rump state concentrated in the western part of the country. Both Trump and former President Barack Obama had avoided direct conflict with Assad while simultaneously launching thousands of airstrikes elsewhere in Syria against ISIS and other militant groups. Now, the U.S. has embarked on a new phase of interaction with the conflict — one to which few analysts can predict an ending.
Thursday night’s missile strike was an eerie reversal of a similar moment faced by his predecessor. In August 2013, following a nerve gas attack that killed more than a thousand people outside Damascus, President Obama backed off threats to attack the Assad regime after declaring the use of chemical weapons a “red line.” After days of high-drama diplomacy, Obama instead reached an agreement with Russia designed to remove chemical weapons from Syria. As this week’s bombing in Idlib proved beyond doubt, some of those stockpiles remained.
The U.S. strike was a reassuring moment for supporters of the Syrian opposition, but one shaded with emotion and irony after years of calls for international military action to stop the Assad government’s indiscriminate barrel bomb and chemical weapons attacks on civilians. “I guess now I’m bitterly happy, some kind of satisfaction that the one who killed the most in Syria is finally partially punished,” says Wisam Zarqa, an English teacher living in Idlib province who was forced to leave Aleppo in December when the city was recaptured by the government. He spoke via WhatApp message.
But what comes next is an open question. The landscape in Syria is now far more complex than it was was in 2013. Since then, foreign fighters have poured across Syria’s borders and ISIS seized a large portion of the country. Among the opposition, hardliners and jihadists have eclipsed Syria’s rebels as the dominant force. Most significantly, Russia launched an air campaign, reversing the Assad regime’s loses and ensuring its survival in a section of the country. With Russian and Iranian backing, Assad reclaimed key territories like Aleppo, dealing lethal blows to the rebellion.
At the same time the United States shifted its focus in Syria from aiding the opposition to Assad to a campaign to destroy ISIS, which has exploited the chaos of the war. The U.S.-led military coalition fighting ISIS has launched nearly 8,000 airstrikes in Syria, and Trump has intensified operations.
Exactly how disruptive this strike will be will depend, in part, on how Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies respond. In the years since 2013, the Syrian government has also used chemical weapons dozens of times, deploying chlorine gas against civilians. A critical question now is whether a single U.S. strike will alter the regime’s calculations about whether and how to attack civilians.
“Fifty nine missiles are not going to change the direction of the conflict. They will of course make the Syrian regime a bit nervous,” Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East program at Chatham House in London, told TIME. “Either these missile attacks are simply a limited symbol that President Trump is using to show that he is different from his predecessor, or they can be the start of a wider process to design a more comprehensive strategy on Syria, but the signs for the second scenario are not there yet.”
The White House has given conflicting signals, so far. Speaking to reporters in Florida on Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attempted to tamp down speculation that Trump would launch a broader assault on Syria. “I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today.” However, Tillerson was separately quoted as saying that steps are “underway” to assemble an international coalition against Assad.
“We still don’t really know what’s going to come after this, and the U.S. government, the Trump administration is itself very unpredictable. So we don’t know, and frankly I don’t know if this is where it ends,” says Sam Heller, a Beirut-based Syria analyst with the Century Foundation, a New York-based think tank.
What is certain is that the Trump administration is taking a more aggressive approach throughout the region. As well as upping the intensity of strikes on ISIS targets in Syria, the U.S. military has pursued a more streamlined approach to battlefield operations in Mosul, Iraq where intense urban warfare is underway against ISIS militants. Alleged civilian casualties have also increased.
Things are changing quickly. Even after the lethal chemical attack on Tuesday, the White House described Assad’s hold on power as a “political reality.” Now, Trump has used the U.S. military to strike Assad’s armed forces. The President himself left the door open to Assad’s eventual removal. “I guess something should happen,” he said.