What started as a popular revolution against an authoritarian regime, in 2011, has turn into a conflict engulfing the Middle East. Indeed, Syria is now home of a civil war between Bashar al-Assad regime and its opposition, of a battle between a kind of international coalition and the Islamic State (IS), a showdown between Turkey and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (Pyd) for its link with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a stage of renewed Russian assertiveness in the Middle East, a new epicentre of foreign fighters who have joined the Sunni fundamentalist groups opposed to Shia militias fighting on behalf of Iran in support of Assad. Then, if Russia could eventually accept a dismissal of Assad, this would be doubtful for Iran, which considers the current regime the only way to ensure a link with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Furthermore, the multiplication of levels of the conflict and the number of actors involved, often with very different goals, is a serious obstacle to its resolution. Finally, the social, political and economic situation of Syria is entirely damaged and a new configuration is not in sight.
At the end of last year, the Syrian civil war entered a new phase after the fall of the rebel enclave of East Aleppo, which was considered as a strategic victory of primary importance for the regime of Assad, which now controls all the major Syrian urban centres (Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Daraa and Latakia) and the major roads of communication. Therefore, rebels were forced to take refuge in neighbouring Turkey or in the opposition-held Syrian province of Idlib, while more division and violence between rival armed groups emerged. Actually, on April 5, in the enclave of Idlib, specifically on the city of Khan Sheikhun, a chemical weapons attack was launched, with a combination of toxic gases, killing 86 people, among them many children, and injuring more than 400 people. The regime of Bashar al-Assad seems to be the only culprit of this war crime, probably committed because he was sure that nobody would have reacted.
The International Community condemned the heinous attack on Idlib. However, Syria and Russia said that the chemicals were not launched by the aircrafts but emitted from the inside of a rebels’ bombed factory, explaining why just few people died. Indeed, some have even questioned the reason why Assad would have used chemical weapons on that target and at this stage of the war, on the same day a conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” was taking place in Brussels, and only a few days after United Stated (US) ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Nikki Haley, had stated that the removal of Assad was «no longer a US priority».
Unexpectedly, suddenly changing its tack, US President, Donald Trump, authorized the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airfield, al-Shayrat, from which the US said the deadly gas attack was launched, during the night between April 6 and 7. The US President has acted with due care of military institutional process, since the air strike was decided with the required decision steps between military officials and intelligence. Immediately, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, said that the air strike was «an aggression against a sovereign State», which would affect US-Russia relations. Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, declared that the American air strike had «completely ruined the relations» between their countries. Actually, the red line drawn by Barak Obama when Assad killed 1.400 civilians in Ghouta with sarin gas in 2013 had been crossed. In fact, Trump said that it was in the US’s «vital national security interest» to deter the use of chemical weapons, inviting all civilized nations to join [the US] in the objective of putting an end to the massacre and bloodshed in Syria». He also added that the chemical attack was an «affront to humanity», recalling the tones of past humanitarian interventions.
Certainly, according to US diplomats, the strike was needed to show Assad that he cannot do whatever he wants and go unpunished, while Russian diplomats declared that the US unilateral action would only strengthen terrorism. Russia also announced its will to strengthen Syrian air defences and to suspend the communication channel with the US, so far used to prevent accidental conflict over Syrian skies. However, the US had announced to the United Kingdom and to Russia (but not to the European Union) that the air strike was about to be launched, but Russian air defence missiles which secure Syrian air bases have not been deployed. Hence, probably Russia was not willing to stand in the middle. Actually, only half of the missiles have hit vulnerable targets, so that after a few hours al-Shayrat airfield was again operational. Perhaps, the US strike might be simply a symbolic act which does not commit the US to any particular, or irreversible, course of action.
Nevertheless, a warning sign has been launched: the US will take military actions if needed. This is a threatening message to North Korea (and perhaps to a reluctant China), but also a reassuring message to Israel towards the Iranian threat, while Turkey is interested in enlarging its influence in the region but does not know how to cope with the new US administration yet. Furthermore, Trump would try to regain that part of his Republican electorate asking for a greater US presence in the Middle East. Undoubtedly, the impact of the chemical attack on the media has played a pivotal role in shaking public opinion, even if worse facts happened in Syria in the last years (the civil war has caused about 500.000 dead) and no similar media coverage is given to other facts and crisis, like the one in Yemen where, according to the World Food Program, there are 5 million children starving because of the war conducted by Saudi Arabia (an ally of the US). Actually, Saudi Arabia approved the US air strike since it hopes in a weakening of the alliance between Syria, Russia and Iran, in order to play a role in the upcoming post-conflict negotiations.
Italian Prime Minsiter, Paolo Gentiloni, said that «the action authorized by Trump is a reasoned response to a war crime», since «the United States have defined their action as punctual and limited and not as a stage of a military escalation», while he was «convinced that the action of this night will not pop, but speed up the chance for the political negotiation». Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of State arrives in Moscow on Tuesday 11 for his first official visit. After that, we will probably be able to asses US willingness for deeper intervention in the conflict. Nonetheless, has stated by Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, it is obvious that «everybody is losing in Syria. The solution has to be political».