This week has become very important if not landmark for the crisis in Syria. It has begun with the brutal chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province on April 4 which left over 80 civilians dead and hundreds injured. In a retaliation move the U.S. President Donald Trump ordered a strike which hit Syrian airbase Shayrat in the morning April 7. The target was chosen as the chemical attack was reportedly launched exactly from that site. As a result, 6 Syrian soldiers killed, 6 MiG-23 jets, supply warehouse and a training center destroyed. These two developments brought an important change in the Syrian equation.
Who is to blame?
The majority of the Western countries blame forces of the Syrian regime for the attack on its own population while Syrian government denies those accusations saying that the rebels are responsible for the attack. Given that no investigation has been accomplished so far and there is no hard evidence that the Syrian army is behind the attack, all accusations and conclusion already being made have no solid ground.
This situation reminds of the similar one in 2013 when series of chemical attacks happened in the Ghouta area near Damascus. The majority of the media and experts put the blame on the Syrian army. However, the official report, which was released in September 2013 after the UN investigation was complete, did not contain any confirmations that Syrian regime was responsible for the attack.
Back in 2013 Russia and the U.S. came up with the delicate plan which made Syria to join OPCW and get rid of its chemical weapons stockpiles. By 2016 this mission was accomplished, although accusations of Syrian government using chemical weapons are still here.
This time in 2017 the investigation is just in its initial phase and the results are yet to come. Therefore, it is quite premature to draw any conclusions based on nothing.
The timing of the chemical attack is also quite telling. It is important to note that the attack happened on April 4 just days, after Trump Administration officially announced that Assad is not its main priority anymore. It would be very unwise from Assad’s side to undertake such action given that Washington changed its overall approach to the Syrian government. This is why there are legitimate doubts that it was Assad’s decision and his forces who conducted the attack.
What is behind Trump’s move?
Launching today’s strikes on the Syrian army air base Trump sent very important messages to three different audiences.
The first message is for the domestic consumers. Trump showed that he is not in the same boat with Putin and he is a president who can take tough actions. So, he needed this move to sort of improve his image at home, to gain scores domestically by tuning down his critics. Thus, the strikes were aimed predominantly at improving Trump’s credibility. What the public see is a sharp contrast with Obama’s decision not to bomb Syria in September 2013 when he allegedly crossed “the redline.”
Trump showed that he is not in the same boat with Putin and he is a president who can take tough actions.
The second message was for Moscow. It says Russia cannot act unilaterally in Syria and sideline Washington. By April 2017 the U.S. looked effectively sidelined in Syria by Russia’s initiatives backed by Iran and Turkey. This basically meant their increased influence in the region and limited room for the U.S. in Syria. Moreover, it gives a stronger hand to State Secretary Tillerson during his upcoming visit to Moscow and negotiations scheduled on April 11-12.
And the third message was to the world. The U.S. is still here and it is capable of doing what is necessary. So, anyone who doubted U.S. capabilities and ability to act in a harsh way now see that the boss is still in the room.
As a result, Trump killed two birds with one stone. He calmed down those at home who pressured him over “Russia affairs,” received approval of the U.S. hawks, and publicly challenged Russia showing that it cannot act unilaterally at its own will in Syria. In addition, such unexpected move showed Trump’s unpredictability and grit. As everyone is speaking in the media about Putin’s unpredictability, Trump establishes a precedent for himself.
Limits of the U.S. move in Syria
Undoubtedly, Washington’s decision to strike Syria brought a positive immediate effect to the administration, but simultaneously it created new issues. What is the next step? Is Trump ready to go further with the military action against Assad in Syria or it is just a one-time move?
The most likely answer to these questions is that it was a one-time action.
Firstly, if we look at the strike itself, dropping all diplomatic and international law rhetoric, it was just another strike. It did not mean to inflict hard damage and losses on the Syrian army. According to the Russia’s Defense Ministry only 6 soldiers were killed, 6 MiG-23 jets, supply warehouse and a training center were destroyed. The runways of Shayrat airbase have largely remained intact. Moreover, it was not the first time when the U.S. strikes Assad’s forces. In September 2016 U.S. air forces bombed Syrian army positions near Deir-ez-Zor leaving over 70 Syrian soldiers dead. Back then Pentagon called it an accident, a mistake. So, when it comes to the purpose of the recent strike it is definitely not about the damage, but it is rather symbolic one.
Secondly, U.S. informed the Russians about their decision prior to the strike. It can be assumed that Damascus was also informed by Moscow which made it possible to scale down the ramifications of the strike.
Trump calmed down those at home who pressured him over “Russia affairs,” received approval of the U.S. hawks, and publicly challenged Russia showing that it cannot act unilaterally at its own will in Syria.
Thirdly, the new U.S. administration is not inclined towards being dragged into the lengthy conflict which requires significant increase of its presence in the Middle East and way more political and public support. Trump won’t risk its current position in order to get some unclear results.
Forth, if Trump decides to go further with the military action there will be almost no chance for U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria and all illusions about reconciliation will evaporate. Given that Trump built big part of his campaign on the idea of anti-terrorist cooperation with Russia he will at least try not to abrupt it immediately.
And ultimately, Trump’s move is hardly a part of the bigger plan in Syria, however it is remained to be seen. But judging by the timing of the strike, its implications, and rationale it is rather an action made out of necessity than a small step in a bigger strategy. Besides, it should be kept in mind that Trump still did not complete staffing his State Department and team especially that part of it responsible for the foreign policy in the Middle East.
Apart all of that Trump has put himself in quite uncomfortable position in long-term. Basically, by showing his resolute response to Assad he gave a hope to the Syrian opposition and its main supporters: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. This will have a boomerang effect as the regional actors will expect Trump to develop this policy further. In a situation when he does not have a concrete strategy it is quite problematic. Thus, Trump might find himself in a situation when he has to constantly raise the stakes, which is quite dangerous as it may ultimately turn into a game of chicken with Russia.
High hopes lead to even bigger disappointment, thus, putting Trump in a tricky situation when his further inaction will be seen as betrayal. In such situation attempts to meet someone’s expectations might end with unpredictable and disastrous consequences.
Apart of that a lot of time is going to be lost in the political track as this escalation won’t make opposing parties more concessive. Thus, political process in Astana and Geneva will be severely damaged.
The Russian President, Foreign and Defense Ministries — all characterized U.S. move as a blatant violation of the Syrian sovereignty and “an irresponsible approach that only aggravates problems.” It is quite understandable, because it brings back memories of 2003 when the U.S. used made-up evidences to justify its intervention to Iraq.
Apart of that Russian Defense Ministry intends to improve Syrian air defense systems to protect the most sensitive and vital objects of the infrastructure. It doesn’t clarify how particular it can be done, but it can be assumed that additional air defense systems S-300 or S-400 might be deployed in Syria. In addition, Moscow announced suspension the cooperation with the Pentagon within deconfliction Memorandum which was aimed at prevention of incidents and providing security during operations in the Syrian air space.
Anyway, the reality has already changed and the new circumstances appeared. The upcoming visit of Tillerson to Moscow might clarify the situation in general and the U.S. approach to Syria in particular.
Alexey Khlebnikov, Middle East expert and Russian foreign policy analyst, MSc Global Public Policy, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. PhD candidate, RIAC expert.