US polarizes world with attack on Syrian regime

From Russia to Israel, the US missile strikes on a Syrian airbase have divided the international community. But the fallout is likely to spill over Syria's borders as alliances supporting and opposing Assad consolidate.

Reactions poured in from across the globe both defending and defying the US' unilateral missile strikes on a Syrian airbase, effectively solidifying those supporting and opposing President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Washington's allies came out behind the attack on the airbase, which was allegedly used by Syrian regime warplanes to launch a suspected chemical attack earlier in the week. But the action has further entrenched opposing positions in the conflict.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande issued a joint statement effectively throwing their weight behind the strikes, saying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad carries "sole responsibility for this development." European Council President Donald Tusk said the strikes showed the "needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks."

Other NATO allies, including the UK, Turkey and Italy, said they viewed the development positively. Throughout Syria's civil war, the West has consistently called for a political solution to the conflict that would require Assad to relinquish power. The US missile strikes on a Syrian military facility effectively corner the White House into supporting that position, one that Trump has attempted to sideline since assuming office.

On the other side, Russia and Iran have insisted that Assad's position in government is not negotiable. Moscow, which has politically and militarily supported Assad's regime, said the missile strikes further strain relations between Russia and the US, and effectively hamper the international fight against terrorism.

"President Putin considers the US strikes against Syrian an aggression against a sovereign country violating the norms of international law, and under trumped-up pretext at that," said presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov in comments circulated by state-owned TASS news agency.

Despite Trump's ambitions to reset US-Russia relations, his order to launch missiles against a Syrian military target creates more obstacles to any kind of rapprochement. But beyond attempts to thaw relations, the unilateral action consolidated support across opposing alliances.

US missile attack on Syrian airbase

59 Tomahawk Missiles

In April, US forces attacked a Syrian air base with cruise missiles in retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. The US attack killed several Syrian soldiers and almost completely destroyed the base.

US missile attack on Syrian airbase

Syrian air base

The air base Al-Shairat looked like this before 59 Tomahawk rockets were fired at the site. US President Donald Trump said this was the base from which the poison gas attack was flown out of on Tuesday. The strike aimed to destroy airplanes as well as prevent take-offs and landings.

US missile attack on Syrian airbase

Attack from the Mediterranean

The cruise missiles were launched from the USS Porter and USS Ross warships stationed in the Mediterranean Sea. It was the first time US forces had directly attacked government forces in the six-year civil war. Previous attacks in Syria targeted the so-called "Islamic State."

US missile attack on Syrian airbase

Turning point for Trump

For Trump, the use of chemical weapons was a turning point in his attitude towards the Syrian conflict. After an even bigger chemical attack in August 2013, which killed several hundred people, he warned then-President Barack Obama against retaliating against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

US missile attack on Syrian airbase

Threats in the UN Security Council

"When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action," US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Wednesday, as she held up photographs of lifeless victims, including children.

US missile attack on Syrian airbase

Targeted attack or accident?

On Tuesday morning a residential district in Chan Sheikhun in Idlib province was bombed and poison gas was released. At least 70 people died in the attack, but responsibility is still unclear.

Gains for regional allies

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he "fully supports" Trump's decision, adding that it sent a "strong and clear message" that "the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated." But Israel, the US' premier ally in the region, has much to gain if Washington increases its military role in Syria and continues to target government forces.

The Israeli government has warned that Hezbollah, a Shiite militia operating out of Lebanon, could acquire weapons from Syria and use them to attack the country. The militant group has fought alongside regime troops and Iranian paramilitary groups.

Israel, along with other members of the international community, have labeled Hezbollah a terrorist group backed by Iran, which the Israeli government claims is the biggest threat to its existence.

But Israel isn't the only one that stands to profit. The US' strategic ally Saudi Arabia described Trump's order to launch the missile strikes against the airbase as a "courageous action."

Riyadh, which supports the Syrian opposition and opposes Iran's influence in the region, also profits from Washington's military action by consolidating support for its interests in the conflict-torn country and opposition to Assad's regime.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

War with no end

Syria has been engulfed in a devastating civil war since 2011 after Syrian President Bashar Assad lost control over large parts of the country to multiple revolutionary groups. The conflict has since drawn in foreign powers and brought misery and death to Syrians.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The dictator

Syria's army, officially known as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), is loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is fighting to restore the president's rule over the entire country. The SAA has been fighting alongside a number of pro-Assad militias such as the National Defense Force and has cooperated with military advisors from Russia and Iran, which back Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The northern watchman

Turkey, which is also part of the US-led coalition against IS, has actively supported rebels opposed to Assad. It has a tense relationship with its American allies over US cooperation with Kurdish fighters, who Ankara says are linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighting in Turkey. The Turkish military has intervened alongside rebels in northern Aleppo, Afrin and Idlib province.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The eastern guardian

The Kremlin has proven to be a powerful friend to Assad. Russian air power and ground troops officially joined the fight in September 2015 after years of supplying the Syrian army. Moscow has come under fire from the international community for the high number of civilian casualties during its airstrikes. However, Russia's intervention turned the tide in war in favor of Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The western allies

A US-led coalition of more than 50 countries, including Germany, began targeting IS and other terrorist targets with airstrikes in late 2014. The anti-IS coalition has dealt major setbacks to the militant group. The US has more than a thousand special forces in the country backing the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The rebels

The Free Syrian Army grew out of protests against the Assad regime that eventually turned violent. Along with other non-jihadist rebel groups, it seeks the ouster of President Assad and democratic elections. After suffering a number of defeats, many of its members defected to hardline militant groups. It garnered some support from the US and Turkey, but its strength has been greatly diminished.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The resistance

Fighting between Syrian Kurds and Islamists has become its own conflict. The US-led coalition against the "Islamic State" has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias. The Kurdish YPG militia is the main component of the SDF. The Kurds have had a tacit understanding with Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The new jihadists

"Islamic State" (IS) took advantage of regional chaos to capture vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Seeking to establish its own "caliphate," IS has become infamous for its fundamentalist brand of Islam and its mass atrocities. IS is on the brink of defeat after the US and Russia led separate military campaigns against the militant group.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The old jihadists

IS is not the only terrorist group that has ravaged Syria. A number of jihadist militant groups are fighting in the conflict, warring against various rebel factions and the Assad regime. One of the main jihadist factions is Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of Idlib province and has ties with al-Qaeda.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The Persian shadow

Iran has supported Syria, its only Arab ally, for decades. Eager to maintain its ally, Tehran has provided Damascus with strategic assistance, military training and ground troops when the conflict emerged in 2011. The Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah also supports the Assad regime, fighting alongside Iranian forces and paramilitary groups in the country.

Beyond Syria's borders

In February, the US president vowed to create "safe zones" in Syria which would offer areas of protection for Syrians fleeing war. While some NATO nations, such as Turkey, have backed the idea, others have voiced skepticism, including Chancellor Merkel.

Trump's order for military action against a Syrian government facility paves the way for an increased role for US military assets operating in and around Syria. Whether that translates into more strikes against Syrian regime forces and military facilities or a push towards a political solution remains to be seen.

"I don't think there's a risk now that this will lead to further war but the big question is how will it affect the all-important way of solving or settling by a ceasefire, the negotiations in Geneva," Hans Blix, who lead a UN mission to monitor WMDs in Iraq and famously rebutted former US President George W. Bush, told DW.

What can be gathered from Washington's latest military action is that various factions of the international community have consolidated their support and opposition to Assad's regime.

But the dangers of exacerbating tensions in the Middle East with unilateral military action, and the potential spillover effect, whether irregular migration or violent escalation, will likely extend beyond Syria's borders.

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TOP STORIES | 07.04.2017

Trump's full remarks on US strikes in Syria