ISTANBUL—Just hours after the U.S. damaged a Syrian airbase linked to a chemical weapons attack, the Assad regime and its Russian ally launched three airstrikes against the very same rebel-held town where Assad was accused of using poison gas to kill more than 100 men, women, and children on Tuesday.
The attacks on Khan Sheikhoun and seven other towns appeared to be both a taunt and a warning to President Donald Trump’s administration: that cruise missiles may have damaged the Shayrat air base, but Syria has many other bases, ample munitions, and the political will backed up by Russia to continue targeting civilians.
The latest airstrikes on Khan Sheikhoun utilized small conventional rockets, and there were no reported injuries, given that much of the population had fled the town. But at least 10 people were killed in a regime or Russian airstrike against Hish, just north of Khan Sheikhoun, a few hours before the 4:00 a.m. U.S. cruise missile attack.
In Irbin, east of Damascus, a woman and two children were killed and many civilians wounded in a regime airstrike on a public market and a mosque. There were also attacks on Jisr al Shughour, west of Idlib, the city of Douma east of Damascus, Dara’a, Latamnah, and Kafr Zeta in northern Hama.
Those who remained in Khan Sheikhoun, a town in the south of Idlib province, welcomed the U.S. intervention, but said they were worried that the Assad regime still has a powerful air force and 20 other air bases.
“We thought that we are forgotten by the entire world, but it seems the chemical weapons attack awakened the human spirit amid people in the West,” said Othman al Khani, the head of the media office in Khan Sheikhoun, who spoke to The Daily Beast over WhatsApp.
The first of the three latest airstrikes occurred in Khan Sheikhoun at around 9:30 a.m. Friday and even as al Khani was describing it, two more came in rapid succession. It was 4:21 p.m. “At this moment, a warplane just struck the northern road into the city and is now maneuvering to carry out another strike,” he said. Five minutes later, he texted that a second airstrike had occurred in the city.
Local civilian volunteers, who are connected with a network of plane-spotters, reported that the aircraft was Russian and had taken off from the Hmemim military base in Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.
“We are glad, but we want a plan to protect innocent civilians forever,” said Saleh Hawa, a school teacher from an Aleppo suburb who was displaced with his family last summer to a village in north Idlib province. In a Skype conversation with The Daily Beast, he said the Trump administration had made a major statement: “We are here. We are the strongest player in the region.” He said airstrikes are “the only language which Russia and its allies can understand.”
A key decision will be how the United States now responds to more conventional violence employed by the Assad regime.
“The majority of the 400,000 that have been killed [in the Syrian Civil War] weren’t killed by chemical weapons. They were from barrel bombs, Russian precision strikes into hospitals into Aleppo—clearly a violation of any standards of behavior, clearly illegal,” said Republican Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has urged more aggressive U.S. military action in Syria.
But many viewed the use of chemical weapons as the trigger, and the appropriate narrow justification, for the strikes the U.S. conducted.
“Basically, the chemical weapons that were being used, which we thought were eliminated, were not eliminated,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat in a swing state. “I think the president was very much within his realm, and I’m very much supportive of what was done last night.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country hosts 3 million Syrian refugees, called the U.S. intervention a “concrete step against the Assad regime’s war crimes,” but said, “I don’t see this as enough.” He called for the declaration of a safe zone inside Syria on the Turkish border so that Syrian refugees go back to their country.
His sentiment was echoed by Republican hawks in the United States Senate, who called on Trump to take further steps to weaken Assad, including the grounding of Syria’s air force, the creation of humanitarian safe zones, and the training of an opposition force that could depose Assad.
“It’s got to be a step in what’s going to be a fairly long journey. My goal is to neutralize Assad’s air power. His ability to kill people using conventional weapons has to be taken off the table… If Assad goes back into the air, goes back to this town and drops bombs and kills babies in another way, I hope we will hit him again,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition, an umbrella organization for all political opposition groups abroad, welcomed the U.S. intervention as the “the first time” that U.S. words “were translated into action” to punish the perpetrators of “horrific war crimes.”
But the cautious welcome underscored uncertainty throughout the region about whether the U.S. has a plan to protect civilians and facilitate an end to the conflict. Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said there were no plans to continue military action in Syria.
“A plan would be you plan to go forward with something. Options would mean there’s additional action could take place as behavior necessitates,” Corker said Friday, following a classified briefing on the U.S. strikes in Syria. “This was an operation intended as a specific response to a specific activity, and no one in America or the Middle East should think there is a plan to continue on. Should there be behavior [that necessitates it], certainly they have additional options.”
It’s just a week since the administration put out the message here in Turkey during a visit by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, that it would no longer seek Assad’s ouster. But after the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, Tillerson told reporters “there’s no role for him to govern the Syrian people,” and said the U.S. would engage in a political process leading to his departure.
Judging from Friday’s multiple reported attacks on civilians, challenges to U.S. resolve are likely to appear daily. Indeed, on Tuesday—the day that chemical weapons are alleged to have been used—the Assad regime was accused of bombing two hospitals and a headquarters of the White Helmets rescue volunteers, attacks that would qualify as war crimes under international humanitarian law.
There are limits to the U.S. intervention’s ability to protect civilians. But on the other side, in their responses to the American action, Russia, whose air force controls the skies over Syria, and Iran, whose volunteers control the ground, and President Bashar al Assad, who controls the apparatus of government, may find they are limited as well.
Now that Trump has shown that he can pivot from a hands-off approach to the first direct U.S. intervention since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, the Assad regime and its foreign allies will have reason to proceed with caution lest they trigger a further unexpected response.
The regime also appears to have a tenuous hold on domestic public opinion in those parts of the country it controls, as witnessed by its failure to tell the full story of the damage caused by the U.S. attack.
Regime media said that 10 civilians were killed by the U.S. airstrikes in villages near the Shayrat base, but it didn’t say a word about government casualties. Baybars al Tillawi, a media activist based in Waer, a suburb of Homs, said he saw dozens of ambulances headed to the airport after the attack.
A report on Al Jazeera, which could not be confirmed independently, said as many as 40 soldiers were killed and 70 wounded in the attack.
—Tim Mak contributed to this report.