Washington/Paris/Beirut: President Donald Trump warned Russia to “get ready" because a volley of US missiles would soon be sent into Syria in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack.
“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!," Trump wrote on Twitter. “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!"
For the second time in less than a year, Trump is weighing a military response to a gas attack. This time, he’s under pressure to hit harder and take bigger risks. The attack Trump ordered last year was limited to a single Syrian base and left little lasting damage. A new retaliatory strike will almost certainly inflict greater damage and probably hit more targets important to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
“It’s unlikely that another set of one-off strikes will deter Assad," said Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. Trump needs to “establish a more effective deterrent by inflicting greater costs on Assad and perhaps his backers."
The prospect of direct participation by France — and possibly other allies such as the UK — would provide greater legitimacy for a large operation that otherwise would risk criticism as violating international law, said Andrew Bell, an assistant professor at Indiana University who focuses on international security and the law of armed conflict. A broader coalition helps build the case for a humanitarian mandate, he said.
French President Emmanuel Macron indicated on Tuesday he believes Syria used chemical weapons in violation of United Nations resolutions and that a decision on how to respond would come from France and its allies, particularly the US and the UK, “in the coming days." Macron said any attack would be aimed at the regime’s chemical “capabilities" and not at its Iranian and Russian allies.
Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, director of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund of the US, said “the French have made it very clear that they have the autonomous ability to strike Syria if they want to."
Saudi Arabia too could participate in any strike “if our alliance with our allies requires it," Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said at a joint press conference with Macron in Paris.
Eurocontrol, a European air traffic agency, asked airlines to apply caution on flights to the eastern Mediterranean region because of possible air strikes in Syria over the next 72 hours.
Trump told reporters at a meeting with military leaders on Monday that the chemical weapons attack on civilians in Douma, near Damascus, would be met “forcefully." On Twitter over the weekend, he warned of a “big price to pay" for the attack.
Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, on ABC’s “This Week" called the tweet a “defining moment" of the Trump presidency, “because he has challenged Assad in the past not to use chemical weapons."
“We had a one-and-done missile attack. So Assad is at it again," Graham said. “You need to follow through with that tweet. Show a resolve that Obama never did to get this right."
The problem is that a more forcible response could upset the delicate balance of groups operating in the country. The situation on the ground is a patchwork of competing and loosely aligned interests, including Russia, Iran, Turkey and the US, which has about 2,000 troops there advising the Syrian Democratic Forces in a fight against Islamic State militants.
A strike that hits Russian assets in the region — even if unintentionally — could result in a dangerous game of one-upmanship, potentially dragging the US further into a conflict the president wants to leave.
“The most important thing about a US strike is the potential for Russian casualties as a result of any military activity there," said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa research at Eurasia Group. “That is where there’s a risk of an escalatory cycle that would be much more meaningful than attacking Assad’s forces."
Any US-led attack almost certainly would rely heavily on long-range, precision-strike missiles launched from naval vessels or manned aircraft outside Syrian airspace even as US or allied forces attempted to neutralize Syria’s well-known integrated air-defence system.
The Tomahawk missile, made by Raytheon Co., would probably play a prominent role in such an attack. It has been fired in most conflicts since its initial use in 1991 against Iraq, when 288 were launched. In last year’s attack on the Shayrat air field, two US destroyers fired 59 Tomahawks.
The latest version of the Tomahawk, which both the US and UK navies have, can loiter over an area for hours, beam target images and battle damage assessments to commanders and be programmed to attack new stationary targets while overhead.
In addition to the Tomahawk, one weapon that likely would be launched from outside Syrian airspace by the B-1B bomber is the Jassm cruise missile. It can also be dropped by the F-15E fighter. Of the roughly 20 nations participating in the Islamic State campaign in Syria and Iraq, only a handful of nations including the UK, France and Germany have aircraft capable of launching such long-range strike weapons. Bloomberg