What next in the aftermath of US strikes?

Bashar Al Assad may know where the red line is, but does America have a long-term plan?

Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad has shown callous disregard for the lives of innocent civilians. Mohammed Badra / EPA
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The global reaction to the American missile attack on Syria’s Shayrat airbase has, with obvious exceptions, been supportive. The reaction within the United States has, however, been mixed. Some supporters of Donald Trump have expressed concern that the attack runs contrary to his “America first” policy of prioritising domestic concerns over foreign engagement. It is easy to see why this decision was necessary, but we are right to wonder what will happen in the coming days.

Make no mistake, as we stated yesterday, the Americans were absolutely right to intervene when they did. Bashar Al Assad had blatantly violated international law, crossing the red line of chemical-weapons use once again. He has shown callous disregard for the lives of innocent civilians over the six years of the Syrian conflict. Equipped with overwhelming moral justification, Mr Trump ordered what was not just a targeted strike on an airbase, but an unmistakable warning to Mr Al Assad that America will not stand by and allow a gross violation of human rights to go unpunished.

But there is a bigger picture: the events of the weekend may well have stopped Mr Al Assad from committing another atrocity, but they do not necessarily bring an end to the war in Syria any closer. Indeed, Shayrat is operational again; Khan Sheikhoun, the scene of the chemical attack, has been the subject of air strikes; and killing continues in skirmishes across Syria.

Mr Trump has left the door open for further action, but his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has said “we hope it will not be necessary”. The Americans must weigh up the possible response from Russia, whose prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said the missile strikes had brought the two countries to “the verge of a military clash”. This would be a nightmare scenario. Meanwhile, Mr Trump has sent a US Navy battle group to the Korean Peninsula as a show of support for South Korea against an increasingly aggressive, nuclear-armed North Korea. These are, indeed, tense times.

Mr Trump must quickly develop a long-term strategy to seek further engagement with this region, find a lasting solution to the Syrian crisis, and balance America’s traditional role of “world’s policeman” with the demands of his own constituency.