Tensions mount with Russia as Sean Spicer says Assad must ‘abide by agreements not to use chemical weapons’ but fails to outline US objectives
The White House appeared to back away from wider military involvement in Syria less than 24 hours after launching Tomahawk missiles at one of Bashar al-Assad’s airbases.
The press secretary, Sean Spicer, refused to discuss any next steps – military or diplomatic – by the US in Syria, as the world struggled to understand Trump’s policy toward the grueling civil war.
Meanwhile, Syrian warplanes were reported to have taken off from the airbase targeted by the US missiles, suggesting that the military impact of the overnight attack had been minimal. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said that government aircraft had bombed the outskirts of Khan Sheikhun, the town targeted in Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack
Spicer called the missile strike on the airbase “very decisive, justified and proportional” and entirely justified by “humanitarian purposes”.
But he demurred on saying whether Assad had to leave power, despite secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s insistence before the missile strike that diplomatic steps to oust Assad were already “under way”.
“At a minimum,” Spicer said, Assad had to agree “to abide by agreements not to use chemical weapons”, but he did not say what, if any, further objectives the US had in Syria, even as Trump came under renewed congressional pressure to present a comprehensive strategy for the US in the Syrian conflict.
At a special session of the UN security council, the US ambassador suggested that the US would not hesitate to strike again if Assad repeated the use of chemical weapons.
“The United States will no longer wait for Assad to use chemical weapons without any consequences. Those days are over,” Nikki Haley said. “The United States took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary. ”
America’s mixed signals on Assad are likely to unsettle or disappoint the Syrian opposition that initially viewed the strike as a glimmer of hope amid a relentless onslaught.
Trump’s missile barrage suggested a reversal from his previous indifference to Assad’s continued rule; the US president now faces conflicting demands from Congress to escalate militarily – and from Russia to back down.
Humanitarians, meanwhile, are demanding evidence of a strategy to end the conflict peacefully.
The first big diplomatic test comes as Tillerson is scheduled to travel to Moscow next week for talks, which will include Syria.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is attempting to revive a critical military communications hotline between the US and Russia that has become the first geopolitical casualty of Trump’s abrupt decision to attack Assad in Syria.
By shutting down the so-called deconfliction channel after the missile strike on Russia’s Syrian client, Vladimir Putin has dared Trump to choose between attacking Assad and attacking Islamic State, Trump’s priority
The military channel is pivotal for ensuring US and Russian pilots avoid accidentally colliding, confronting one another in midair or attacking each other’s forces or proxies in north-eastern Syria. It also has a significant political component, according to former defense officials: to ensure competing air wars in Syria do not accidentally spiral into a confrontation between two nuclear powers.
The morning after ordering missile strikes, Trump held a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Trump made no mention of his decision and ignored shouted questions on whether he would also consider military action against North Korea. Trump spoke only about the relationship with China, claiming “tremendous progress” had been made in the one-day summit.
Xi replied: “President Trump has given us a warm welcome and treated us very well.” Without referring to Syria or North Korea, he stressed the need for “peace and stability”, “partnership”, and “prosperity”.
In the aftermath of the US missile strikes, the Kremlin denounced them as an “act of aggression in violation of international law”.
At a UN security council session, Russia’s deputy envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, warned the “consequences for international stability could be extremely serious”.
“It’s not hard to imagine how much the spirits of the terrorists have been raised by this attack,” Safronkov said.
The Russian defense ministry said it was beefing up its air defenses in Syria.
A Russian defense ministry spokesman, Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov, said a “complex of measures” would be carried out shortly to “protect the most sensitive Syrian infrastructure facilities”.
The Russian navy was reported to be sending a frigate aimed with cruise missiles to Tartus, on the Syrian coast.
Konashenkov insisted that the effectiveness of the US strike was “very low”, claiming that only 23 of the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles reached the Shayrat airbase in the province of Homs. He said the strikes had destroyed only six MiG-23 fighter jets of the Syrian airforce, which were under repair, but didn’t damage other Syrian warplanes at the base.
The US military insists all but one of the missiles reached their targets.
The US was supported by its western allies and Turkey. France’s president, François Hollande, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said Assad bore “sole responsibility” for provoking the missile strike.
The UK’s defense secretary, Michael Fallon, said the strike was “wholly appropriate”. He added that the UK would not be directly involved in any military action without parliamentary approval. Fallon said he had been in “close discussions” with his US counterpart, James Mattis, but stopped short of claiming to have been consulted on the decision.
The UN security council was convened on Friday to hear briefings on the situation in Syria and to hear arguments over the chemical weapons attacks and retaliatory missile strikes. No vote was scheduled on the competing resolutions on Syria currently before the council, and it was not expected to lead to an agreed course of action.
An opportunity for Russia and the US to stop the slide toward confrontation will come on Tuesday, when Tillerson is due to make his first trip to Moscow as secretary of state. He has signaled that the missile strikes had limited objectives – to deter the use of chemical weapons – and that the US priority remained fighting Isis first, and dealing with political transition later.
In the days before Tillerson’s visit there are expected to be urgent efforts to repair the suspended deconfliction channel.
— Sean Spicer (@PressSec) April 7, 2017
The Pentagon would not address whether its airstrikes on Isis had already been reduced in response, nor if it had anticipated Russia’s move to abandon the channel before Mattis, the defense secretary, briefed Trump on options for the missile strike. But the Pentagon left little doubt it wanted Moscow to reopen military-to-military communications.
“The Department of Defense maintains the desire for dialogue through the flight safety channel. It is to the benefit of all parties operating in the air over Syria to avoid accidents and miscalculation, and we hope the Russian ministry of defense comes to this conclusion as well,” said Lt Col Michelle Baldanza, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
After Russian forces moved into Syria to bolster Assad’s then faltering regime, “we recognized in the fall of 2015 that the airspace over Syria was going to get much more crowded, and we didn’t want to kick off an international incident from our planes being in proximity to one another,” said Andrew Exum, the senior Pentagon official with the Middle East policy portfolio when the US established the communications channel.
Whatever the tactical military advantages of opening the deconfliction channel, it also had a substantial political component.
“We’re not talking about going head-to-head, nor locking radars at each other,” said Christopher Harmer, an ex-navy pilot and a defense analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “The fact that we’re no longer actively deconflicting is a political escalation, not a military one.”
The channel also had propaganda value: Putin has sold his intervention in Syria at home and abroad as a necessary measure to fight Isis, despite his overwhelming tactical focus on helping Assad regain territory.
Exum said: “We didn’t want to give the impression we were coordinating with the Russians. The Russians very much wanted to give impression we were working together in a great endeavor against violent extremism in Syria and that’s just not the case.”
The aftermath of the strikes saw congressional pressure, even from Democrats normally opposed to Trump, for the White House to escalate its involvement in Syria’s brutal civil war. Several legislators pressed Trump to deliver a strategy to guide future US action and welcomed a renewed debate for congressional authorization of future strikes, a measure that failed in 2013 when Barack Obama proposed it.
“I fully support a robust US role in ending the Syrian civil war as soon as possible,” said the Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, who asked Trump for a “comprehensive strategy to end Syria’s civil war”.
However, others also insisted the military strike must be followed by the difficult and complex process of diplomacy. David Miliband, former UK foreign secretary and now president of the International Rescue Committee humanitarian aid organisation, said: “We share the fury of the president at the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The impunity of those who wage war against civilians, whether by chemical or conventional attacks, must be brought to an end.
“The question we have for all those engaged in military action in Syria concerns their plan to stop the killing and build a durable peace. That question is even more important after the events of the last 72 hours. Every Syrian is waiting for that question to be answered.”