Limited US action against Syria suggests conflict unlikely to escalate | World 

Ewen MacAskill

7-9 minutes


The US-led operation against Syria <> , 
which included contributions from the UK and France, was a modest one, limited 
to a short, sharp attack against targets alleged to be linked to chemical 

It is intended as a one-off, with no further strikes planned unless the Syrian 
president, Bashar al-Assad, conducts chemical attacks in the future.

There had been speculation in advance of the attack that there was a risk it 
could lead to world war three. It was far from that. 

The operation involved more weapons than the strike the US conducted 
unilaterally against a Syrian airbase 
  last year. On that occasion, 20 Syrian planes were destroyed, estimated at 
20% of the Syrian air force. The US fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles in that 
attack: no planes were used, to minimise the risk of American losses.

What you need to know about the Syria strikes – video report 

The attack in the early hours of Saturday morning involved almost twice as 
many, 110 missiles. That is not a major escalation. There were only three 
targets, including a research and scientific institute on the outskirts of 
Damascus and a storage space west of Homs, alleged to have been used to store 
<> , which 
was hit by the RAF.

The main overall aim, apart from sending a message to Assad to desist from 
chemical weapons attacks, was to keep as far away as possible from Russian and 
Iranian positions, to avoid widening the conflict by directly drawing in Russia 
or Iran.

In spite of Russian rhetoric during the week of potential retaliation in the 
event of the attack, in reality Russia is far short of the military strength it 
enjoyed as part of the Soviet Union, with Moscow as anxious as Washington to 
avoid conflict. In almost every area other than nuclear weapons, Russia is 
heavily outnumbered in terms of defence spending and equipment compared with 
the US.

The US spends about $550bn annually on defence compared with Russia’s $70bn. To 
take just one indicator, Russia has one ageing aircraft carrier while the US 
has 20. 

To help avoid conflict, the US warned the Russians in advance that the attack 
was coming and the air corridors that would be used, but not the targets.

'A strong deterrent': Trump announces strikes on Syria – video 

The US aim in Syria, as Donald Trump indicated before the Douma 
  attack, is to leave Syria as soon as the US judges Islamic State to have been 
totally defeated 
 . The attack does not change that. It was not used to attempt regime change. 
Assad’s presidential palace, exposed on a high hill above Damascus, was left 
off the target list.

Assad could well be relatively happy with the outcome and the impact on him may 
be even less than the US raid last year. Most of his air force, as well as 
helicopters allegedly used to deliver the chemical weapons, remains intact.

The US, British and French escaped unscathed. There was a risk from the 
relatively sophisticated air defence system that Russia has or even from the 
more antiquated Syrian ones. An Israeli plane crashed in February, which the 
Syrians claimed they had downed 
 . The RAF had four Tornados in action, but at no point did they enter Syrian 
air space, instead flying close to the the RAF Akrotiri base in Cyprus, and 
firing the Storm Shadow missiles, which have a range of about 300 miles. 

Another potential risk that failed to materialise was that an attack on 
chemical weapons might spread the poison, engulfing Syrian military personnel 
and civilians. Chemical weapons inspectors suggested such an outcome was 
unlikely, as a missile would blow up chemical weapons. 

The other risk was for a miscalculation that led to high civilian casualties. 
Although the US and UK military insist missiles are more precise and 
intelligence better, mistakes happen. In the 1991 Iraq war, the al-Amiriyah 
bomb shelter in Baghdad was hit killing more than 400 civilians, and there was 
the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

Amateur footage shows missiles falling over Damascus as airstrikes begin – 

To try to avoid Russian or Iranian or civilian casualties, the US, British and 
French planners opted for targets they believed were far enough away to avoid 
such an outcome.

Trump contributed to the hysteria that the world was on the verge of WWIII with 
his tweet <> : 
“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready 
Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!”

In spite of rhetoric on the Russian side to match Trump’s hysteria, claiming 
they would shoot down incoming missiles and retaliate against US and other 
targets, they settled only for monitoring the incoming missiles and did not 
attempt to shoot them down 

Moscow could respond, as it has threatened, by upgrading Syria’s air defence 
 , which could worry Israel. And they could yet retaliate in some other region 
or by using deniable hybrid warfare, such as a cyber-attack. But equally, 
looking to showcase the upcoming World Cup, they might opt for a period of 

The UN secretary general, António Guterres, had warned just hours before the 
raid that the cold war was back with a vengeance, potentially more dangerous 
because the old mechanisms for managing conflict seemed to have disappeared. 

But, as the night demonstrated, the mechanisms are still in place, still intact 
and worked as they were meant to. The US was in communication with the 
Russians. And the Russians did not retaliate.

In the end, this raid was about as modest a one as the US-led coalition could 
mount, more symbolic than anything else. 


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