World·Analysis

False hopes? U.S. attack on Syrian airbase raises expectations

Activists who have long complained that the world has failed to stop Syria's brutal war now say the United States needs to do more to protect civilians and end the conflict, currently in its seventh year.

'We are hoping that this is the just the beginning of more action and more involvement by the U.S.'

Tomahawk missiles fired from U.S. warship in the Mediterranean Sea 0:45

Across the Middle East, leaders and Syrian refugees taking shelter throughout the region, welcomed the U.S. escalation in the Syrian war with the strikes launched overnight by its military forces.

But activists who have long complained that the world has failed to stop Syria's brutal war now say the United States needs to do more to protect civilians and end the conflict, now in its seventh year.

President Donald Trump authorized the launch of 59 cruise missiles, fired from warships in the eastern Mediterranean, early Friday morning. The target was the Shayrat airbase in western Syria, from which U.S. officials say Syrian forces launched a chemical weapons strike on Tuesday.

That attack, believed to have been carried out using sarin gas, a nerve agent, killed at least 80 people, including at least 27 children.

"These strikes should have happened a long time ago," said Mohamad Issa, who fled Syria with his family and now lives as a refugee in Turkey. "There has been so much killing … one cannot comprehend. God willing, the situation will get better."

Support for Trump's military action also came from capitals around the world, with Canada, Britain, Germany, Israel, Jordan, Japan and Saudi Arabia among the nations backing the strikes.

But Trump faces a number of risks, now that the U.S. has launched its first direct attack against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey and a coalition of Syrian opposition groups are pressing the U.S. to take further action to protect the millions of civilians who remain in Syria.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and U.S. President Donald Trump: raising the stakes in Syria. (SANA/Reuters; AFP/Getty Images)

"We are hoping that this is the just the beginning of more action and more involvement by the U.S. so that the bloodshed in Syria can finally be stopped," Dima Moussa, a spokesperson for Syrian National Council, a coalition of opposition groups, told CBC News from Istanbul.

"Hitting one airbase is not enough — there are 26 airbases that target civilians," said Mohamed Alloush, a leader of the Army of Islam, a Islamist opposition faction fighting in the war, said on Twitter.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed the U.S. intervention as a "positive and concrete step," but said deeper U.S. involvement is needed.

It's a clear message that the U.S. will not allow dictators to use chemical weapons.- Eyal Zisser , academic

"I don't find it enough," Erdogan told a rally in southern Turkey near the Syrian border. "It is time to take serious steps for the protection of innocent Syrian people."

Turkey has called for the establishment of "no-fly," or safe zones, where international military forces would prevent Syrian government aircraft from attacking civilians.

But for such zones to be effective, outside nations would need to invest significant military resources, and there's no indication Trump is prepared to do so.

While the early morning cruise missile attack is being hailed as significant warning to the Assad regime, it's likely to have little effect on how the overall conflict plays out.

New airstrikes

Russia's defence ministry said six Syrian MiG-23 fighter jets were destroyed in the attack, but it appears the runway at the base was largely undamaged.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said new airstrikes were carried out — likely by Syrian government forces — against rebel targets in north-western Syria, just hours after the U.S. strikes.

Reed Foster, a military analyst with IHS Jane's, a defence analysis company, said the U.S. action will "further weaken" the ability of the Syrian military to launch ground attacks, but "it will not significantly diminish the ability of the Assad regime to conduct further chemical weapons attacks."

If Friday morning's attacks are a precursor to deeper U.S. military involvement in Syria, there are concerns that could distract from the international effort against ISIS, which is led by the United States.

'Clear message'

But if the raid against the Shayrat airbase is the extent of U.S. involvement, it will stand out for its symbolism and little else.

"It's a clear message that the U.S. will not allow dictators to use chemical weapons," said Eyal Zisser, the head of the Middle Eastern and African History department at Tel Aviv University.

"But it has a very limited effect, because Bashar al-Assad has lost many airfields to the rebels during the last six years, and he survived," Zisser told CBC News.

Still, Trump's surprise attack has signalled that the United States is once again actively involved in the Middle East, after eight years in which some leaders in the region felt abandoned by the foreign policy of Barack Obama.

"Now [the U.S. is] acting in the Middle East and telling to their allies in the Middle East, you are not alone, not anymore," said Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Israel's prime minister.

"America is here to help you, if America decides that it fits into its interest."

The airstrike early Friday local time in Syria targeted the Shayrat military airbase in Homs. (CBC)

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.

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