After two days of uncertainty from the US administration, following a chemical attack by the Bashar Assad regime, the Americans sent a message to the world on Thursday night in the least subtle way possible: with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired straight at a Syrian air base.
It was a message directed toward Assad and the people of Syria, to allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, foes like Iran and North Korea, the US’s great frenemy Russia, and to the American public back at home.
Internationally, the 59 Raytheon Co. missiles fired from the USS Ross and USS Porter told American partners — and enemies — that despite the “America First” rhetoric, the US is again very much a factor on the world stage. Domestically, it was a sign that US President Donald Trump, whose administration has seen false-starts, failures and pushback, would take decisive action when he deemed it necessary.
Each Tomahawk missile costs between $500,000 and $1.5 million, depending on the model, so the cost to the US for the strike is at least in the tens of millions.
“They are telling their allies in the Middle East: You are not alone,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser and IDF general, in a phone briefing on Friday organized by the Israel Project.
Breaking from the navel gazing so prevalent in this part of the world, the strike on Syria should also be at least briefly considered in the context of North Korea, which has been antagonizing the United States with nuclear and ballistic missile tests — vide the strike occurring during Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who holds considerable cachet over Pyongyang.
Though a clear message, the early Friday morning bombardment on the Shayrat air base in Homs was, to a large extent, symbolic: The Assad aircraft that carried out the apparent sarin gas attack took off from Shayrat.
According to the Kremlin, the US informed the Russians ahead of the attack, and they predictably passed along the message to the Syrian military, allowing them to clear the air field and prevent large numbers of casualties. Dozens of Tomahawks were fired, but reportedly only nine people were killed and nine planes were destroyed.
The Russian S-400 air defense battery — considered one of the best in the world — apparently did not strike down a single US missile, either because it couldn’t or because the Russian military opted not to intervene.
For followers of Israeli security news, the early morning strike — a large-scale attack on a military site with few deaths — should seem familiar. The IDF has been carrying out such strikes for years against Hamas observation posts and infrastructure in Gaza.
It’s about a one-off message — namely, “cut it out” — rather than the opening shot of a new campaign. (The latter would look more like the Tomahawk barrage on Baghdad in 2003 that kickstarted the Iraq War.)
The US has yet to give any indication that Friday’s airstrikes portend further American involvement in the Syrian civil war, beyond its current efforts there fighting the Islamic State terror group.
Though the US missile attack may act as a warning message to Iran against using nonconventional weapons — e.g. a nuclear bomb — in the future, it is not likely to have much of an immediate impact on Israeli security, according to Amidror, who is now a fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies think-tank.
But the long-term effect of the American foray into the Syrian mire — on Israel and the world — is far from clear.
A message to Iran
In the Jewish state, in Saudi Arabia and — this cannot be forgotten — among many Syrian civilians, the missile strike was praised as a godsend.
“I am going to name my son Donald, if I have one. This man is a hero. He has balls,” Qusai Zakaria, a Syrian activist who was injured in Assad’s 2013 chemical weapons attack, told the Telegraph newspaper.
Similar, near-messianic sentiments were expressed by other Syrian civilians across social media, praising Trump and the airstrikes against the Syrian Army.
But for Israel and Saudi Arabia, the staunch enemies of Assad’s ally Iran, the US missile strike was seen through the lens of their fight with the Shiite axis being led by the Islamic Republic and stood in stark contrast to Barack Obama’s inaction against the Syrian regime after the 2013 chemical weapon attack, in which over 1,000 people were killed.
“Israel fully supports President Trump’s decision and hopes that this message of resolve in the face of the Assad regime’s horrific actions will resonate not only in Damascus, but in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement of support.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman praised the cruise missile attack as well, calling it “important, necessary and moral.” But Liberman also shrewdly noted the significance of the US letting Israel know about the strike beforehand.
“The American update to the IDF and security establishment before the attack in Syria is further proof of the strength of the relationship and depth of the connection between Israel and its largest ally, the United States,” the defense minister said in a statement.
The Israel Defense Forces, which usually keeps mum on international issues, released a statement saying that when it was notified of the attack, it too “expressed its support for the decision.”
‘The feeling in Israel was that Obama didn’t see Iran as part of the problem. Trump does’
In Israeli minds, Obama’s refusal to adhere to his “red lines” about chemical attacks gave carte blanche not only to Assad to act as he pleased, but also allowed Iran to remain entrenched in Syria and paved the way for Russia to bring its influence and weapons into the region.
“The feeling in Israel was that Obama didn’t see Iran as part of the problem. Trump, by contrast, appears to view Iran as part of the problem,” Chagai Tzuriel, the director-general of the Intelligence Ministry, told The Times of Israel last month.
In the state-run Saudi Press Agency on Friday, Riyadh lauded the “courageous decision” by Trump, adding that the Assad regime only had itself to blame for the retaliatory strike in light of the “odious crimes it had committed for years against the Syrian people.”
Inside the war-torn nation, though some like Zakaria saw Trump’s bombardment as heralding a profound change in US policy, rebel militias praised the bombing, but expressed concern that it would ultimately have little to no effect.
“We welcome any action that will put an end to the regime that is committing the worst crimes in history,” said Colonel Ahmed Osman, of the Turkey-backed Sultan Murad rebel group.
Mohamed Alloush, a key figure in the Army of Islam rebel faction, wrote on Twitter: “Hitting one airbase is not enough, there are 26 airbases that target civilians.”
As of Friday afternoon, the United States has given no indication that it intends to do more than hit one airbase.
The US military is engaged in fighting across the Middle East and Africa — wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, smaller operations in Somalia and Yemen, among others — and is operating intensively in the South Chinese Sea. Expanding the US military’s role in Syria beyond its current capacity in the coalition against the Islamic State would be a tough domestic sell for Trump, who ran on an isolationist platform.
But for Israel in the meantime, Amidror said that an attack by Syria or the Iranian proxy Hezbollah is “less likely” in the short term than it was before, owing to their knowledge that the Trump administration is watching the region more carefully and potentially with a finger on the trigger.
Beyond the immediate future, the view gets murkier.
For the past six years, analysts and experts of every stripe and pedigree have attempted to prophesy what will happen next in Syria’s civil war, and nearly all have eaten their words.
Israel hopes that Friday’s bombardment will act as a deterrent to the Shiite axis gaining strength in the Middle East. But at the same time, it may drive the Iran-led force into deeper ties with Russia.
Following the attack, Moscow reportedly promised to help Assad build up his already formidable air defense program — a potential harbinger of complications for Israel, which carries out airstrikes in Syria against Hezbollah weapons caches on a reportedly regular basis.
Earlier this week, a top security official said that had Obama in 2013 sent a single jet to Damascus to just drop a bag of water on Assad’s palace, history would have taken a different course. But nearly four years later and with considerably more Russian involvement, Trump’s 59 Tomahawk missiles might not be enough to turn the tide in Syria.