The West Rebukes Russia in Syria

Geopolitical Futures

By Jacob L. Shapiro

Late last week, the U.S., U.K. and France launched coordinated missile strikes on select regime targets in Syria. It was the second time the Trump administration had ordered strikes on the Assad regime, and only two things distinguish last week’s strikes from the ones that were carried out a year ago: Twice as many missiles were fired in the most recent attack, and the U.K. and France participated. But the strikes will not change the Syrian war. They were driven mainly by domestic politics in the three countries involved, which have emphasized both that regime change is not their goal and that Russia is partly responsible for Bashar Assad’s actions.

Four Powers

There are now four global powers intervening in Syria: Russia, the U.S., the U.K. and France. Russia ventured south to distract from problems at home. The U.S., which intervened initially to try to destroy the Islamic State, has struck Assad twice, mainly because President Donald Trump does not want to be compared to former President Barack Obama, who didn’t enforce his own red line on Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The U.K. has latched on to Russia as Europe’s boogeyman and is using both diplomatic expulsions and now airstrikes against a Russian client state to distract from contentious Brexit negotiations, which as recently as a few months ago threatened to bring down Prime Minister Theresa May’s government. France, which is dealing with crippling labor unrest and a president, Emmanuel Macron, with rapidly declining popularity ratings, wants to hide what everyone already knows: France has become Germany’s junior partner in the EU.

All four are equally unprepared for a war over Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. The U.S. is desperately searching for a way to leave Syria. The U.K. and France are hardly willing to deploy the type of military force that would be necessary to bring down the Assad regime, much less militarily confront Russia. Russia’s Syria deployment has always been limited, concentrated mostly on air assets to help the Assad regime defeat rebels who can’t challenge Russia in the skies. This is not Desert Storm, nor is it a prelude to World War III. It is foreign powers doing what they’ve always done in the Middle East: pushing pawns around on a chessboard to make a point to each other and even to themselves.

Meanwhile, the real players in this war were remarkably quiet over the weekend. Israel, which has bombed Assad regime targets and Iranian targets in Syria multiple times, reportedly supplied some intelligence on Syrian chemical weapons facilities but otherwise did not participate in the expedition. (A blast at a Hezbollah base south of Aleppo over the weekend appears to have been a weapons depot explosion and not an Israeli air attack, as many news outlets reported.) Turkey was busy mediating between Russia and the United States right up until the missiles started falling. Iran called the attacks a crime but has confined its vengeance to rhetorical flourishes thus far.

The Syrian civil war may yet morph into a much larger conflagration – but if that happens, it will be because of a clash of Turkish-Iranian interests, not because of limited Western airstrikes on Assad’s chemical weapons facilities. While Russia and the U.S. exchange condemnations at the U.N., the Assad regime will continue to mop up the opposition; Turkey will continue its incursion into northern Syria; Iran will continue building bases and strengthening proxies throughout the country; Israel will apply its deterrence strategy to a much larger target; and the Syrian Kurds will inch closer to the inevitable moment that they are hung out to dry by their patron – the U.S. – which no longer has a use for them. The sooner the threat of Western airstrikes abates, the sooner the belligerents can get back to the real fighting.

An Anti-Russia Coalition

But Western powers insist that they will continue to intervene so long as the Assad regime continues to use chemical weapons. Something here has never quite added up. There is little publicly available proof that chemical weapons were used in Douma. The U.S. has said it believes they were, but its track record when it comes to evaluating the presence of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East leaves something to be desired. Furthermore, coalition airstrikes started shortly before investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrived in Damascus. The timing of the Western strikes – which were delayed to give Russia an opportunity to remove its forces from harm’s way – is thus confusing, considering that launching the strikes before the investigation could be carried out gives Russia a useful talking point.

Moreover, there is little reason for the Assad regime to use such weapons. It’s too easy to explain this away by insisting that Assad is just a monster – he might be a monster, but he’s been an exceedingly pragmatic one up to this point, and there’s little reason to think that has changed. Assad and his patrons have no motive for using chemical weapons in this case. The regime is on the cusp of securing Damascus – why engage in a chemical attack on a mostly defeated opposition? Using chemical weapons offers little in the way of a military advantage and gives Assad’s enemies a useful pretext to launch attacks. Russia is trying to leave Syria and has been trying to move toward a negotiated settlement for months. Iran’s position in Syria is menacing but weak – it needs time to establish a robust presence and secure its long supply lines – and becoming a Western target is detrimental to its agenda.

Amid this confusion, the one thing that can be said for certain is that an anti-Russia coalition has been defined. The Western strikes did not change the balance of power in the Syrian war, and indeed, they have relatively little to do with the conflict that is grinding Syria into dust and ruin. It seems more likely at this point that the strikes were a political statement against Russia. (Germany was reportedly offered an opportunity to join the strike, but it has a more complicated relationship with Russia than the others do and didn’t want to engage in direct military action against a Russian ally.) The U.S., the U.K. and France may have bombed chemical weapons facilities in Syria, but they also went out of their way to demonize Russia as a menace to the liberal international order.

Our forecast for this year didn’t anticipate that the West and Russia would be clashing to this extent. Russia wants a balance of power in the Middle East, one that keeps Turkey and Iran fighting each other indefinitely, preventing both from becoming powerful enough to challenge Russian interests in its desired spheres of influence. The Western powers also want a balance of power. But old habits die hard. Cold War comparisons, however wrongly applied to the current situation, are understandably compelling in a morally ambiguous conflict. Domestic imperatives also sometimes outweigh international ones. Trump wants to look strong, May needs Europe focused on foreign threats instead of the border with Northern Ireland, and Macron is desperate for a political win – and all can be had at the low cost of bombing insignificant targets in a Middle Eastern pariah. As for Russian President Vladimir Putin, it’s now Moscow versus the West – and a great deal of economic dysfunction can be forgiven if it is suffered in defense of Mother Russia.

There are two wars being fought here: a military war for Syria, and a public relations war between Russia and the West. The airstrikes in Syria were salvos in the latter. The former has no end in sight.