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Syrian Rebels Laud U.S. Missile Strike -- WSJ

8 Apr 2017 6:32 am
By Raja Abdulrahim 

BEIRUT -- Syrian opposition supporters hailed the U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base, but said they doubted it would shift the balance of power in a war that has increasingly tipped in favor of the regime.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's office said the attack was "a reckless and irresponsible act that only reflects a shortsightedness, a narrow horizon, and a political and military blindness."

The U.S. said the cruise-missile strike on Shayrat air base was retaliation for a deadly chemical attack on an opposition-held town earlier this week.

Opposition activists and medical workers said the regime launched a new chemical strike, using chlorine gas, on a rebel-held area on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on Friday, injuring two people. American officials were looking into the unconfirmed reports that chlorine was used, a senior administration official.

Friday's U.S. missile strike was the first direct attack on the regime since the war began in 2011, and rebels said it could make Mr. Assad more willing to negotiate a political settlement to end the war. Four rounds of peace talks this year have yielded no progress as a cease-fire crumbled and the situation on the ground worsens for civilians and opposition forces.

"It's going to have a real impact on the political process," said Yahya al-Aridi, a spokesman for the opposition delegation to the talks. "This is the first time in over six years the regime will be carefully calculating its steps. For the first time it feels really and seriously threatened."

At least 16 people were killed in the U.S. attack, including seven military personnel, and the cruise missiles caused extensive damage, said regime official Talal Barazi, the governor of Homs province. Nine of them were civilians, including four children, killed when three missiles struck two nearby towns, Mr. Barazi said. The death toll couldn't be independently confirmed.

Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Mr. Assad, told the pan-Arab news channel Al-Mayadeen the air base struck was a hub for the Syrian army's military campaign against Islamic State militants.

"The American aggression violates all international laws and aims to affect the Syrian Arab Army's capabilities in countering terrorism," according to a statement released by the army.

Military analysts, however, said the base was used mostly to launch airstrikes on areas controlled by rebels, some of whom are backed by the U.S. and its allies.

"The most important thing now is that it sent a message to regime allies that the international community is going to hold Bashar accountable," said Muhammad Saeed al-Masri, a military commander with the rebel group Faylaq al-Sham. He added that the U.S. action raised the prospect of creating safe zones in Syria now that the regime was being punished for attacking civilians.

In the wake of the strikes on Friday, Turkish officials called again for the establishment of no-fly zones.

President Donald Trump said the gas attack had changed his thinking on Syria and Mr. Assad. Tuesday's chemical attack on the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province killed at least 85 civilians, and Turkey's health ministry said autopsies suggested the banned chemical agent sarin was the cause of death.

"Syrians have mixed emotions. They are both happy and angry at this traitorous regime, which has brought us to this point of hoping another country will come and strike our military bases," said Munther al-Khalil, who heads the opposition's health ministry in Idlib province, one of the last opposition strongholds and the site of Tuesday's chemical attack.

Mr. Khalil helped oversee the treatment of hundreds of victims of the chemical attack, who were sent to hospitals across Idlib province to be treated.

"These strikes are the only language which Bashar al-Assad's regime understands," said Issam al-Reis, spokesman for the Southern Front, a coalition of rebel factions in southern Syria.

A U.S. military official said Thursday that the U.S. had traced the gas attack to a particular plane and sought to target the plane's air base.

"It's not a crippling strike," Reed Foster, a military capabilities analyst at IHS Jane's, a defense-intelligence provider. "It was a little more of a symbolic strike."

While U.S. officials said the attack was a one-off strike meant to deter future use of chemical weapons, the fact that the air base's radar and air-defense systems were targeted suggests an attempt to degrade the government's defensive capabilities, he said.

Such a move could lay the groundwork for follow-up strikes, Mr. Foster said.

Syrian rebels said the missile strike wouldn't change the balance of power between opposition rebels and the regime.

"It is too early to assess if these are symbolic strikes or a true shift in policy, but they have definitely put the Assad regime on notice," said Labib al-Nahhas, head of foreign political relations for the Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, one of the biggest rebel factions in Syria. He added that targeting regime forces alone wouldn't have a lasting impact on the conflict since Mr. Assad remains heavily reliant on foreign forces for survival.

To force the regime into meaningful negotiations on a political transition, he said Iranian forces and Iran-backed Shiite militias must be weakened and pressure continued on Russia, another of the regime's main allies.

--Noam Raydan and Dion Nissenbaum contributed to this article.

Write to Raja Abdulrahim at raja.abdulrahim@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 08, 2017 02:32 ET (06:32 GMT)

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