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U.S. Missile Strike Marks 'Beginning Of New Strategy' In Syria


To talk about the military impact of yesterday's strike on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, we have Jennifer Cafarella. She's the lead intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War. Welcome to the show.

JENNIFER CAFARELLA: Thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: So the U.S. targeted the Sharyat air base, and we know this is the base that the U.S. says this apparent chemical attack came from. How significant a base is it to the Syrian air force?

CAFARELLA: So this was an operational air base located north of the capital city of Damascus near front lines between the Assad regime and ISIS. So it was an operational base that actually both the Syrians and the Russians had been using in order to conduct airstrikes against both ISIS as well as against Syrian opposition forces in western Syria.

MCEVERS: Right. How many planes were stationed there? Do we know?

CAFARELLA: We don't have full visibility from open source on the suite of Syrian aircraft that had been deployed to the base. We do have information that U.S. officials are stating as many as 20 Syrian airplanes were destroyed in the strike.

MCEVERS: Were destroyed - yeah.

CAFARELLA: I would expect that that is the majority, if not all, of the Syrian planes that had been stationed there.

MCEVERS: So then how big a blow would that be to Assad's air force, which, you know, for some time has leaned on the Russians for support?

CAFARELLA: Sure. So it is a blow of course against Assad's air force. Now, the Russians actually had intervened in September of 2015 precisely because Assad's air force was no longer asymmetric enough on the battlefield actually to halt gains by al-Qaida and the Syrian opposition.

MCEVERS: So if you're an opposition fighter or say ISIS, you're not going to look at this strike and say, wow, this is going to really change things on the battlefield.

CAFARELLA: Well, it is an important signal. And you know, removing these planes does reduce the regime's capability, you know, to conduct additional strikes. It doesn't remove that capability, but it certainly is a step in the right direction.

MCEVERS: And what are you hearing, or what do you know from Syrian opposition fighters? You know, do they see this as a moment then to, you know, again, maybe not - maybe the loss of just these few aircraft isn't a major strategic move. But do they see this as a moment to make some new gains on the battlefield?

CAFARELLA: Sure. Well, the immediate response from the moderate Syrian opposition was of course to praise the strike and to emphasize the importance of the U.S. putting down a strong response to the use of chemical weapons intentionally against civilians. So I think the focus remains for the moderate opposition forcing Assad to the negotiating table, which is, you know, the intent behind the opposition's call for additional strikes.

MCEVERS: And you praise the Trump administration for taking this action, but you say that what's needed now is a larger strategy. What do you think that strategy should look like?

CAFARELLA: Sure. Well, I think it's important first and foremost to recognize that while the Assad regime is waging a campaign of war crimes, the Assad regime is actually not alone in doing that. So the U.S. can't actually develop just a Syria strategy. The Russians and Iranians are deeply involved in the Syrian regime. They actually provided life-sustaining support in terms of their military contribution. The Russians and Iranians are committing war crimes of their own.

So this is a time for the administration really to take a step back and develop a regional strategy to produce an outcome in Syria that is in accordance with American interests and American values.

MCEVERS: A regional strategy, though, that some would say could get us into a big quagmire in the Middle East, something that a lot of American people don't want to do.

CAFARELLA: Well, I would submit we are already in the midst of a big quagmire in the Middle East. We already have American troops deployed inside of Syria. So we're there. And I think my concern is to make sure that any use of American military force is actually tailored to produce an outcome that is worth the risk and the cost and an outcome that is in fact sustainable.

We were not previously on a path to a sustainable or desirable outcome inside of Syria. So Trump's strike is a step in the right direction, but it's certainly just the beginning of a new strategy.

MCEVERS: Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War, thank you very much.

CAFARELLA: Absolutely, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.