A vicious gas attack on April 4th killed over 70 people in Idlib, Syria.
President Donald Trump, who blamed the Syrian government for the attack, responded by ordering a missile strike against the airfield from which the chemical attack was launched.
On Thursday, US warships fired nearly 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the base – marking the first time the US has directly attacked Assad’s government during the ongoing civil war. At least six people were killed, including civilians.
“It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” said Trump, adding that Syria had violated the “chemical weapons convention and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council.”
Turkey and a handful of European countries, including Germany and France, have expressed support for the attack.
Syria calls the strike a “blatant act of aggression” and says it makes the US a “partner” of ISIS.
Iran, a key Assad ally, calls the attack a “destructive” and “dangerous” violation of international law.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, another Assad ally, condemned the strike as “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law.”
Russians may have been present at the airfield when the strike was launched.
“This step by Washington is causing significant damage to Russian-American relations, which are already in a deplorable state,” said Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “Of course, Syria is our ally, considering that we are helping the Syrian armed forces at the Syrian leadership’s request.”
He even went so far as to say the strike “was carried out for the benefit of ISIS and other terrorist organizations.”
Russia insists that Syria “has no chemical weapons” and has decided to suspend a 2015 air agreement aimed to minimize the risk of collisions. Under the pact, Russia and the US shared information regarding flights by US-led forces targeting ISIS and Russian planes working in support of the Assad government.
On Friday, a Putin spokesperson said the risk of aerial confrontation has “significantly increased.”
The Russian Defense Ministry calls the strike a “grave violation of the memorandum” and plans to upgrade its air defense system in Syria “in order to protect the most sensitive objects of the Syrian infrastructure.”
CNN’s Matthew Chance says the airstrikes “are an immensely dangerous episode in the relationship between Russia and the United States, not least because they potentially bring into contact Russian forces who are on the ground in Syria and the US forces.”
“What’s really interesting to me is that Russia has one of the world’s most sophisticated surface to air missile systems in place and presumably operational as well inside Syria,” says Chance, referring to the S400 and S300 systems.
Either system could have intervened to protect the base. “That implies a degree of tacit Russian consent for allowing essentially these airstrikes to take place without any kind of intervention, which they had the military capability to do,” says Chance.
Some worry that striking at Syria could start a proxy war with Russia, but this is unlikely. Relations with Moscow may deteriorate further, and Syria is understandably pissed off, but it is unlikely that anyone will directly threaten our ships or our forces on the ground. We have become the “big dog” once again.