Did the cruise missile attacks against a Syrian government airfield change anything in Iraq and Syria?Jump to full report >>
In April 2017 the Trump Administration fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at an air base near Homs, in Syria, in retaliation for what the US said was the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against its own people in rebel-held areas.
The attack seemed a sharp U-turn from Donald Trump’s isolationist ‘America-first’ comments during campaigning. It also seemed at odds with the US President’s policy of rapprochement with Russia.
Russia is betting that its military support for the Damascus government has ensured its lasting survival and is moving to influence the final settlement.
As relations between the US and Russia seemed to return to their habitual hostility, there were other shifts in allegiance taking place over Syria.
Turkey and Russia have sharply improved their relations since Turkey shot down a Russian fast jet in 2015, and have jointly sponsored a new peace process. But their allegiance is shallow and cooperation tactical rather than strategic. Both are keeping groups onside as a hedge against betrayal by the other and, despite stronger cooperation against ISIS, their differences over the Syrian government remain.
Iran remains deeply committed to the survival of the Assad regime; some US politicians close to Trump argue that the Iran nuclear deal has allowed Tehran to increase its spending on this and on supporting Shiite militias in Iraq – a powerful factor in shaping Iraq after the eventual fall of ISIS, something many observers now see as inevitable. If the US goes ahead and imposes new sanctions on Iran, particularly if it categorises the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organisation, the delicate cohabitation between the US and Iran in Iraq may be destabilised.
The prospects of some sort of negotiated settlement may have increased since the Syrian government re-established control over Aleppo at the end of 2016 – the mainstream rebel groups supported by the US and its allies, and ISIS/Daesh, have both become weaker. However, the durability of any Syrian government that looks at all like the current one must be questionable.
As ISIS/Daesh comes under increasing pressure in Mosul and al-Raqqah, analysts worry that it will abandon its strategy of holding territory and concentrate on more familiar tactics of violent jihadi groups: organising or inspiring sporadic attacks. ISIS claimed responsibility for the March 2017 attack in Westminster, for example, as well as the attack in Paris in April 2017. If and when fighters leave a collapsing caliphate in Iraq and Syria, there may be a surge in such attacks in the West.
ISIS may plan to hit other vulnerable states in the region, particularly Jordan, hoping for direct conflict with Israel. Countries neighbouring Iraq and Syria, such as Turkey and Jordan, have already borne the brunt of the refugee crisis caused by the conflict and many of their nationals are fighting with ISIS. They could also be the biggest victims of a new ISIS shorn of its territory.