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Following the U.S. Missile Strike in Syria

Here’s a round-up of confirmed, unconfirmed and conflicting information regarding the U.S. missile attack and its impact on the Bashar al-Assad government and the state of U.S.-Russian relations.

Written by Hiba Dlewati, Alessandria Masi Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A Syrian boy stands with his bike near a shop in the Kawergosk refugee camp in northern Iraq, April 8, 2017. For the millions of Syrian refugees scattered across camps and illegal settlements across the region, the chemical attack on a town in northern Syria and subsequent U.S. strike was a rare moment when the world briefly turned its attention to Syria, before turning away again.AP/Felipe Dana

The Chemical Attack on Khan Sheikhoun

What we know:

  • The death toll from the alleged chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun last Tuesday reached 90 people (at the time of writing) by the following week. Pictures that circulated on social media, from activists and human rights groups, showed that many children were among the victims.
  • At least one doctor said the patients exhibited signs of exposure to a nerve agent – foaming at the mouth and fluid filling the lungs, which can lead to suffocation. He also said that “those who were given the sarin antidote became stable in about an hour.”
  • Turkey’s health minister said on Tuesday that autopsies of some of the victims showed signs of methylphosphonic acid (MPA) in their blood and urine samples, which is a breakdown of sarin gas once exposed to air and water.

What we don’t know:

Unconfirmed or conflicting reports:

  • The U.S. and many other Western states accused Bashar al-Assad’s air force of carrying out the attack, but the Syrian government said it “categorically denied” using any toxic gases in Khan Sheikhoun or elsewhere in the country.
  • Russia said the Syrian government airstrike hit a rebel weapons warehouse that contained chemicals.

The Syrian Air Base

What we know:

  • The U.S. strike targeted the Syrian government’s Shayrat Military Airfield in Homs. The base was the second largest in Syria and had two runways.
  • In 2015, Russia said it was “reinforcing” the base, and one military source told Agence France-Presse that it was being “prepared to become a Russian military base.” Russia built additional runways, expanded the base and, in March 2017, sent new attack helicopters there.

Unconfirmed or conflicting reports:

  • The base was used to launch attacks on rebel-held Idlib as well as positions held by the so-called Islamic State in eastern Homs and Deir Ezzor.
  • President Trump said that the air base was used to house chemical weapons, some of which were used to carry out an attack last week in Idlib. The New York Times reported that the the missiles “did not target any areas that might have chemical weapons.”

The U.S. Missile Strike

What we know:

  • The U.S. targeted the base with 59 Tomahawk missiles, fired from American destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean on Thursday night.
  • The Pentagon said the U.S. warned Russia prior to the strike.

Unconfirmed or conflicting reports:

  • The Syrian army said the U.S. attack killed seven people, including four children.
  • U.S. defense secretary James Mattis said on Monday that the strike “resulted in the damage or destruction of fuel and ammunition sites, air defense capabilities and 20 percent of Syria’s operational aircraft.” He added that the government could no longer refuel or rearm at the airbase.
  • In its original statement on Thursday, the Pentagon said missiles “targeted aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage areas, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems and radars.” On Friday, the Pentagon released images indicating damaged and destroyed aircraft shelters at the airfield.
  • The Russian Defense Ministry said that only 23 (of 59) missiles reached Shayrat and that only six Syrian air force MiG-23s that were under repair were destroyed as well as several buildings.

The Impact on Assad

What we know:

  • The Syrian military used the Shayrat airbase the next day; two jets took off to target ISIS positions in eastern Homs province.
  • The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution in 2013 stating that the OPCW would oversee the “complete elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment” in Syria. By June 2014, the last of Assad’s declared chemical weapons had been removed from Syria to be destroyed. However, deputy director for emergencies at Human Rights Watch, Ole Solvang, said “attacks with chemicals have been happening on a regular basis since 2013.”
  • In January, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned Syrian military officials for the first time “in connection with the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons.”
  • Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress in 2016 that “we continue to judge that the Syrian regime has used chemicals as a means of warfare since accession to the CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention] in 2013.”

Unconfirmed or conflicting reports:

  • Trump said on Thursday that the strikes would “prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

Future U.S. Strikes on Syria

What we know:

  • There is still no consensus in Washington on whether this first U.S. strike against Assad’s military will be the only one. Therefore, we can only know that we still do not know for sure if this will change the U.S. military role in Syria or if the White House administration has shifted its Syria priority from focusing on ISIS to Assad.

Conflicting reports:

  • Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said on Sunday that “in no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government.”
  • White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on Monday that “the sight of people being gassed and blown away by barrel bombs ensures that, if we see this kind of action again, we hold open the possibility of future action.”
  • U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the focus is still ISIS and that it was a one-time strike.
  • U.S. rep. Tulsi Gabbard, (D-Hawaii), said she is “skeptical” that Assad’s government carried out the alleged chemical attack.

Russia-U.S. Relations

What we know:

  • Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Moscow on Tuesday. Tillerson reportedly went with the ultimatum that Moscow must decide between working with the U.S. or Assad.
  • Several anonymous senior White House officials on Tuesday accused the Russian government of engaging in a cover-up of the chemical weapons attack.
  • A spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said the U.S. had violated international law “under a false pretext.” Later that week, Putin said Russia knew “provocations” that were being pre-planned to blame Syria’s government for using chemical weapons.
  • Putin is expected to run for his fourth and possibly last term in Russia’s 2018 elections.

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