By launching cruise missiles against the Syrian Air Force base, the United States pursued three political goals: to demonstrate its superior power, to try to intimidate China and to end suspicions that Russia can influence President Trump, Valdai Club expert Vasily Kashin believes.
In the early hours of Friday, the United States launched cruise missiles at the Syrian air force base Shayrat. A total of 59 Tomahawk missiles were fired, at least seven people killed and 15 aircraft destroyed.
According to Valdai Club expert Vasily Kashin, senior researcher at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics, this move is much more significant politically than militarily. The airstrike was exceptionally powerful, but the losses of the Syrians are relatively small. This is because the possibility of such a strike was planned in advance.
“If we look at the behavior of representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry, it becomes clear that Russia expected a high probability of a military strike,” Kashin said. “We also know that there was a warning about the strike. They apparently organized a mass evacuation from the base. Fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles with cluster warheads have enormous destructive power. If this was a fully staffed military base with personnel, where combat duty is still ongoing and departure flights are being prepared, at the very least, hundreds of people would have been killed.”
In this case, it is not even clear whether the destroyed aircraft were operating combat units. “It must be kept in mind that air forces of such countries as Syria always have a significant percentage of aircraft that are in non-flying condition, stay grounded, and are used as a reserve for providing spare parts for those aircraft that are actually flying,” Kashin said. “So far, everything indicates that the airstrike has a certain military significance, because the base has been destroyed and it will not be possible to use its runway for some time, but with limited losses for the Syrian armed forces, which can be quickly compensated by deliveries from Russia and Iran.”
Why was such devastating force employed? Kashin believes that the Americans sought to achieve a guaranteed political effect. The goal would have been achieved even if the Syrians had urgently tried to organize defenses. It is extremely difficult to repel a strike by such a large number of missiles against one target, and in the Syrian situation, it is nearly impossible, the expert said.
It is significant that cruise missiles were launched during a meeting of President Trump with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “From the military point of view, there was no reason not to maintain a level of noise for a couple of days and to deliver exactly the same strike after Xi Jinping returned to China,” Kashin said. Obviously, this action serves as some kind of message to the Chinese leader.
“The Americans are well aware of the Chinese position on Syria, which is in principle very close to the Russian position, even if it is not openly expressed,” the expert says. “I think that this is a manifestation of a policy of intimidation against China, which is quite compatible with previous rhetoric of Trump and some members of his entourage, and is intended to demonstrate to China the possible strength of American reaction in the event of aggravation of the situation in Southeast or Northeast Asia.”
According to Kashin, such an attempt to intimidate China and to undermine the authority of its leader will have an extremely negative impact on bilateral relations. “For the Chinese, the tradition of diplomacy, the tradition of doing business is such that at a summit meeting, at least in appearance, there should not be any unexpected events that can have an ambiguous interpretation,” he said. “It is necessary to demonstrate harmony, a positive mood, to follow the previously agreed plans. When a leader comes to the US and in his presence an order is given to commit a strike against a third country, contrary to the Chinese position, it is a very bad sign for bilateral relations. Now, the Chinese will try to smooth out this incident, but certain conclusions will be made.”
Finally, another motive for airstrikes could be Trump’s desire to get rid of the plume of accusations that he is under the influence of Russia. “To say that Trump is under the influence of Putin, or that the Russian security services have some kind of killer compromising evidence on him and they can influence him will now be much more difficult,” Kashin said. From a legal point of view, this strike cannot affect the investigation of links between Trump’s election campaign and Russia, but the credibility of accusations against the president will significantly decrease, he concluded.