About a year ago, the Trump administration carried out a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield within 48 hours of a major chemical weapons attack on civilians, allegedly carried out by the Assad regime. The strike did some damage but nothing of such significance as to force the regime to change its strategy, either in general or on chemical weapons. Indeed, there was no expectation of change. The response was the military equivalent of a strong diplomatic note and was treated as such by the Syrians.
It’s almost been a week since the latest major chemical attack, this time targeting the Damascus suburb of Douma. Assad’s regime is again generally assumed to have been responsible. U.S. President Donald Trump vowed a short time later that there would be a “big price to pay” and, outside of an ambiguous tweet on April 12, has continued to threaten military action, yet this time he has held off on launching it. The more time goes by and the more the threat is repeated, the greater the anticipation and anxiety. By implying that the response will be more substantial than the previous one, Trump has allowed imaginations to run wild over what the U.S. might do.
Everyone is preparing. The Russians moved their ships in Syrian ports out to sea. A ship in a port is a relatively easy target, and the Russians seem unsure whether their ships might be targeted. This suggests the Russians are considering their ability to counterstrike against enemy assets in the eastern Mediterranean. There have also been widespread rumors in Arabic media that Bashar Assad and his family have left Damascus. A Russian lawmaker denied the rumors, but the mere existence of such rumors gives a sense of the regional tension over the American response. Turkey has renewed its call for Assad’s removal but asked the Americans and Russians to talk. British submarines set course for the region, something that the Russians chose to ridicule. The Saudi crown prince said Saudi Arabia would join any allied strike against Syria. The expectation seems to be that an attack could come at any time.
A Disturbing Threat
What’s odd about this is that earlier this month, before the chemical weapons attack, endless leaks claimed that the U.S. Department of Defense wanted the U.S. to take a more active role in Syria but that the president resisted. Trump publicly said he wanted a reduction of force in Syria. During his campaign and through much of his presidency, he has said he wanted to reduce U.S. responsibility for and exposure to global instability. In the wake of the chemical attack, however, Trump has reversed course. Through his repeated threats and delay, Trump has placed the United States back at the center of the Syria equation.
As tragic as it is, the chemical attack was not a critical moment. Assad’s regime has killed many of its people, including with chemical weapons. That part is not new. What may be moving things in this direction, though, is Iran’s role in Syria. Iran has long been active in the region, but since the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it has gotten more involved, placing substantial forces in Syria and Iraq, in addition to its usual support of proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
Shortly after the Douma attack, Israel launched a substantial airstrike on an Iranian base near Palmyra. This was not retaliation for the chemical attack; Israel has stayed away from that sort of action. Israel’s concern is rather with the transfer of advanced weaponry (including potentially the very chemical weapons the Assad regime is accused of using in Douma) to the Iranian proxy Hezbollah, as well as Iran’s construction of a permanent presence in Syria. Israel has always been able to count on distance to protect itself from Iran, but as Iran builds up its forces in Syria, it becomes more of a direct threat to Israel. Israel does not want to retaliate to such attacks but to stop them before they occur.
Russia in the Crossfire
Israel notified the U.S. of the airstrike in advance, and the U.S. had no objection because it sent the message that Washington wanted to send: Anyone using chemical weapons in Syria will be hit hard. At this point, the Russians and Syrians have insisted that they did not use chemical weapons. This is more than pro forma. The Russians know that if Iran in particular, but also Syria, use chemical weapons, then the Israelis and Americans will strike.
Russia is not in Syria to engage the Americans or the Israelis. The Russians do not have the forces in Syria to match the force the Israelis or Americans could bring to bear. Their purpose in the country was to gain political leverage with the U.S. by preserving Assad. An alliance with Iran strengthened Russia’s position, but this chemical attack threatens to draw the Russians into a conventional battle in the region that they are not prepared to fight. Russian supply ships would have to come through the Bosporus, and Turkey couldn’t be trusted to stand aside. Turkey does not want Assad in power, and his use of chemical weapons gives Turkey even more reason to pursue that objective.
This means the Russians need to defuse the situation. They have made it clear to the Israelis and Americans that they had nothing to do with the chemical attacks. But even if a low-level Syrian officer ordered the chemical attack on Douma, that would make Russia complicit in the use of chemical weapons, which would provide a legitimate reason for the Israelis or even an international coalition to strike sensitive targets in Syria. This leaves the Russians in a difficult position, and trying to distance themselves from the chemical attack does them no good. All it does is signal that Russia has no control over the Syrian regime, which also means it probably can’t control Iran. Therefore, Russia is now caught in a potential crossfire.
Looked at in this way, the more pressure exerted on the Russians, the more likely they are to feel the threat and modify their position. A threat of massive American action is even better than actual massive American action. A major U.S. attack could fail – or fail to impress. Instead, Trump has created serious uncertainty among all players in the region, save probably the Israelis. Syria, Iran and Russia do not know what, if anything, is coming, and of the three, Russia is in the weakest position. The Syrians have nowhere to go. The Iranians didn’t fight their way to this point to simply leave. But the Russians weren’t in Syria to fight a major conflict. They were there to show the flag. And that makes the threat of being drawn into a larger conflict unappetizing for Moscow.
Direct intervention is not an appealing option for Trump, but the creation of uncertainty is. Of course, uncertainty has a limited shelf life. A serious U.S. attack on Syria – one whose aim would be to degrade the Assad regime’s fighting ability, not just to slap Assad on the wrist – is unlikely, if still possible. The U.S. is happy to rely on Israel to keep attacking Iranian facilities from time to time. Trump can threaten, but the Israelis have no choice but to act.
Whatever happens next, the risk is relatively low for the United States. The same can’t be said for everyone else.