US strike in Syria tested Moscow, and Russia was found bluffing

It is now clear that Russia cannot protect the Syrian regime if the US is determined to challenge it. The myths and rationalisations of a “Third World War” have been overthrown.

Photo by: US Navy via AP
Photo by: US Navy via AP

An image provided by the US Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) launches a tomahawk land attack missile from the Mediterranean Sea into Syria on Friday, April 7, 2017.

Kyle Orton Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst and research fellow with the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based security and foreign policy think tank. @KyleWOrton

“On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians using a deadly nerve agent. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack,” So said President Donald Trump last night when announcing that for the first time the US had intentionally militarily attacked the coalition of forces keeping Assad in power. What happens next will determine whether this is seen as a blip in a failed US policy toward Syria, or the beginning of a much needed course correction.

The Shayrat air base in Homs Province has been an important piece of infrastructure for the pro-Assad coalition, a housing venue for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, after they intervened in Syria, in 2012-13, to rescue Assad. The Assad regime’s air force has been a key advantage over the opposition, the single deadliest instrument in the war against a rebellious population and the principal cause of the refugee crisis. In recent weeks, it was mainly from Shayrat that the regime coalition’s aircraft took off to defeat an insurgent offensive in nearby Hama.

Details released by the US Department of Defense point to Shayrat as the takeoff point for the April 4 chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun that massacred at least 84 people, half of them women and children. Having tried to find accounting through the United Nations Security Council and running into the Russian veto — which has seven times been wielded in collaboration with China to shield Assad —Trump gave the order to enforce the ban on weapons of mass destruction unilaterally.

At about 4:40 am local time, the US Navy began a barrage of 59 tomahawk cruise missiles that obliterated the Shayrat air base, less than 72 hours after Assad’s attack. At least nine regime jets — a relatively significant number — were destroyed.

Trump had supported Obama standing back from enforcing his own “red line” in 2013 when Assad murdered 1,400 people with sarin nerve agent — a decision Obama remains “very proud” of, as he does his Syria policy more generally, despite the devastating consequences for US allies and the international taboo against chemical weapons. Trump had been noticeably pro-Assad in his rhetoric on the campaign trail. As recently as last week Trump’s administration stated that US focus in Syria was on Daesh, and Washington took no view on Assad remaining in power. This was Barack Obama’s policy, though the Obama administration had been careful to retain the rhetoric of its initial statement in 2011 that Assad must “step aside.”

Why Trump changed his mind is a matter of speculation. Trump stated that, apart from the humanitarian reasons, he had struck at the Assad regime to uphold vital US interests in deterring the use and spread of weapons of mass destruction. Undoubtedly, there were political motives: a sizeable part of Trump’s appeal is that he is a strong leader, unlike the “weak” Obama, and a rerun of the humiliating 2013 climb-down therefore had to be avoided. Perhaps, too, Trump was affronted that, just days after his rhetorical concession to Assad, the tyrant would attempt to humiliate the West — and terrorize the Syrian population into submission — by demonstrating that he operated with complete immunity from international response.

The Trump administration was particularly stern in addressing Moscow during this crisis, noting that the Russians were either unable or unwilling to restrain Assad. The Obama administration defending its unwillingness to complicate Assad’s capacity to commit industrial scale crimes against humanity by saying that the alternative was an Iraq-style invasion, and later — once Russia intervened in Syria — that it would lead to a Third World War. It was “boots on the ground or head in the sand,” as the late Fouad Ajami once put it. These myths and rationalisations have now been overthrown.

Militarily the advantage was always with the US, and Russia’s behaviour makes clear that there is no political will for a direct confrontation. Yesterday afternoon, Moscow announced that its support for Assad was not unconditional. The US strikes avoided the Russian-occupied areas of the base — and those parts with sarin. Likely, Moscow was informed ahead of time about the strikes, so its disappointment with Trump and suspension of communications with the US over Syria are purely symbolic. Moscow was tested and found bluffing: they cannot protect their client when the US is determined that it should be otherwise.

In the aftermath of these strikes, there are some risks, but they mostly come from Iran. The Islamic Republic’s proxies in Iraq could begin attacking US forces again, and the US-led offensive to push Daesh out of Raqqa could be disrupted by Iranian-controlled pro-Assad forces. Still, in both cases the real story is that the failure of the last administration to push back against Tehran has left the theocracy with these options.

More immediately than these risks are concrete gains: the price of using chemical weapons of mass destruction has been raised in Syria, likely to the point that those weapons have been eliminated from this terrible battlefield. The second-order benefit of crossing the self-imposed constraint of not militarily attacking the “sovereign” in Syria is that US negotiators can now engage with the regime from a position where the regime and its allies do not know in advance that the US will not exact a price from them for defiance.

There has been an outpouring of support for Trump from both populations and governments in the Middle East, and it is possible this will help encourage Trump toward a more general break from the last administration’s policy. The policy  that allowed half-a-million people to be killed, incubated Daesh and Al Qaeda’s most powerful branch, enabled the Iranian revolution to impose an imperium across large swathes of the Fertile Crescent, damaged relations with a NATO state, and destabilised Europe with a refugee flow that radicalised politics in a direction that allowed Russia to try to break Europe away from America  cannot be considered a success.

The main adjustment Trump should make is away from the monomaniacal focus on Daesh, not only does this blind US policy to larger challenges, like Iran, but it is a failure on its own terms. A narrow focus on Daesh has led to the US partnering with the Kurdish PKK in Syria and Iranian proxy militias in Iraq, as well as supporting Assad regime military operations — all of which creates political space that ensures Daesh’s survival. The liberation of Raqqa is necessary, but how is far more important than when if the goal is to inflict a durable defeat on Daesh. An alliance with traditional partners and local allies can contain Iran and defeat Daesh, and these strikes are an opportunity to strengthen the crucial relationships in building such a coalition, which have frayed in the last eight years.

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