Few expected the United States to respond to Bashar al-Assad’s latest chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun with a direct military attack. But U.S. President Donald Trump has done so, apparently without a strategic plan or desired outcome for the now seven-year-old war in Syria. At this point, it is unclear whether the strikes will be followed by other action or whether the United States would respond the same way to a future chemical attack. As a result of this uncertainty, the war’s end is now likely even further off.
The strike on the Shayrat airfield, which involved 59 Tomahawk missiles, came after the U.S. military tracked a Syrian aircraft that had attacked a rebel-held town in northern Idlib province back to the base. The reactions from Syria and Russia, the Assad regime’s main benefactor, have been severely critical.
Meanwhile, the balance of power on the ground in Syria remains the same, except for the fact that Assad has fresh incentive to demonstrate that he is fully capable of striking his opponents. Although he is now more deterred from engaging in a fresh chemical attack, the regime needs to show it remains in control. It likely believes traditional conventional weapons attacks will not provoke a forceful response from the Trump administration. Thus, more barrel bombs aimed at the Syrian people are likely in the offing. All the while, it remains unclear whether the United States will continue to strike Syrian forces, reengage in diplomacy, or go back to the status quo ante.
Even if the attack had been a more effective deterrent, of course, it would have been immediately neutered by the Trump administration’s failure to spell out a specific strategy undergirding the strike. For example, had the Trump administration laid out specific criteria for further strikes and signaled that it would begin fresh diplomatic efforts to reinstate a countrywide ceasefire and pressure Russia to bring Assad to heel, the deterrent effect would have been amplified. But