Five things to know about the U.S. airstrikes in Syria

From the UN’s response to what it means for U.S.-Russian relations, here are the key takeaways so far.

By: /
7 April, 2017
U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea which U.S. Defense Department said was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017. Ford Williams/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout/Reuters
John Woodside
By: John Woodside

Freelance journalist

Early Friday morning, an airbase in Syria was pummelled by 59 missiles launched from two U.S. warships. According to the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, the strike was done in retaliation of Bashar al Assad’s chemical weapons attack that killed 80 people on Monday.  The airstrikes, which occurred shortly before 4 a.m. local time, have been applauded by some, but Trump’s unilateral attack marks a sharp departure from the diplomatic style of the Obama era.
The decision to bomb the Syrian airbase came near the end of a tumultuous week for Trump’s foreign policy. Assad’s attack on Monday in Idlib came days after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “The longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” leading many to believe that the chemical attack was, in part, a test of the Trump administration on whether the U.S. would intervene.

Meanwhile, tensions over North Korea have been mounting, as the hermit kingdom tested yet another missile, which led Trump to threaten China by saying that “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.” This was done days before President Xi Jinping met with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort. 

Both turns of events set the backdrop for the U.S. attack. Here are five key takeaways in its wake.  

1. Canada applauded the airstrikes.

In a statement released Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a war crime and that “Canada fully supports the United States’ limited and focused action to degrade the Assad regime’s ability to launch chemical weapons attacks against innocent civilians.”

Critically though, Canada is maintaining its position in the region, stressing that it will “support diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria.” Trudeau couched his support of the strike by highlighting the “limited and focused action” rather than an all-in support of broad war.

Trudeau also says he was briefed by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan after U.S. Defence Secretary Mattis told him of the imminent attack, approximately an hour before it was carried out, supporting the notion that the U.S. was acting completely alone.

2. Influential Republicans are calling for more.

Shortly after the attack, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued a joint statement that called for building on this attack to “ensure that the tactical success leads to strategic progress,” and that “the first measure in such a strategy must be to take Assad’s air force.”

They also called for more support for Syrian opposition forces, the establishment of safe zones, and the continuation of the campaign to defeat ISIS. From their statement however it is unclear to what extent they want to expand this war effort: Do they mean sending ground forces to establish safe zones or are they only supportive of continued air campaigns?

They also used their statement to further politicize the strike, writing that “unlike the previous administration, President Trump confronted a pivotal moment in Syria and took action,” referring to former president Barack Obama’s infamous decision to back down from his own red line about Assad’s chemical weapon use. Obama’s decision to not attack Assad came in part with an agreement that Assad would hand over chemical weapon stockpiles to Russia (which had been done in part). 

3. This was not the first U.S. airstrike in Syria — but this time is different.

While the U.S. has conducted airstrikes in Syria before this week, this marks a turning point because it was a direct shot at Assad’s military, rather than airstrikes in support of tacit regional allies or against ISIS militants. 

Airstrikes in Syria before this week’s attack have rested on war authorizations provided to the president by Congress after 9/11 to fight al-Qaeda. The argument until this point had been that ISIS is an offshoot of al-Qaeda and so the war authorization still applied. But directly attacking the Syrian government’s military clearly does not fall under this mandate. 

In a separate statement, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine called the attacks “unlawful” because Trump did not seek congressional approval (Though he added that Congress would work with the president on the issue).

4. The attack complicates U.S. relations with Russia.

Russia is a staunch supporter of the Assad regime and has used its military to prop up the Syrian military in its brutal civil war. Trump has also of course been accused of having suspiciously close ties to Vladimir Putin, which makes this strike on Syria all the more complicated.

Before the airstrikes were launched, the U.S. used the “deconfliction line” (a communication tool set up to notify both sides of action in the airspace) to inform Russia, alerting them to move personnel from the airbase to reduce casualties. This is standard diplomacy, but the attack prompted Russia to call the move an “act of aggression” and suspend the line, which until now has served to prevent direct conflict between U.S. and Russian forces. 

5. Military action does not replace a political solution, says the UN.

On Friday, the UN Security Council had an emergency meeting to discuss the U.S. attack, at which Russia promised to bolster support for the Assad regime by strengthening Syria’s anti-aircraft defences. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley meanwhile told the council “that strengthening Assad will only lead to more murders.”

With both sides risking catastrophic escalation (Assad has since pledged to double his efforts against the opposition), UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has urged restraint.

Mindful of the risk of escalation, I appeal for restraint to avoid any acts that could deepen the suffering of the Syrian people,” Guterres said in a statement on Friday.

“These events [both the chemical attack and the U.S. airstrikes] underscore my belief that there is no other way to solve the conflict than through a political solution. I call on the parties to urgently renew their commitment to making progress in the Geneva talks.

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