The chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta on April 8 has a potential to become a turning point in the Syrian conflict and possibly lead to the reassessment of the American role in the war. The use of chemical weapons in Syria is not something new, with the first reports of such attacks in Eastern Ghouta appearing in 2013. The infamous attack back then resulted in a deal between Russia and the U.S. to remove chemical weapons from Syria, which arguably helped Moscow to keep Assad in power despite the deal on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
The Douma attack has undoubtedly resulted in an escalation in Syria that is long overdue. With the fight against ISIL in full swing up until a year ago, the underlying rivalry between the United State and Russia over who would claim the defeat of ISIL was already visible. This competition between the two powers significantly intensified when Donald Trump took charge in the White House and turned the war of words into a proxy standoff.
Now that ISIL is in a process of demise and the Assad government in Syria is no longer threatened by a regime change, Russia and the United States are inevitably sliding back into the classic great power rivalry in the Middle East. There are many ways in which competition between powers may have resurfaced in Syria: The two have already clashed over reconstruction of the country. The United States has made it clear that its contribution to post-war rebuilding efforts is conditioned on a fair political process in Syria, which Russia sees as a manipulative approach by a side that has failed to perform a regime change in the country.
However, what is more troubling is not electrified political squabbles over Syria but a growing competition on the ground between Moscow and Washington. Ever since the fall of ISIL in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, we have seen the transformation of the Syrian battlefield with three distinct sides emerging: the Turkey-backed rebels in the north, the U.S.-backed SDF east of the Euphrates River, and the Russia-supported Syrian government. As a result of this process, there are now fewer fighting parties in the Syrian conflict but they have become larger, which makes it easier to negotiate and strike deals.
One thing Russia has grossly miscalculated, however, is that northern Syria has become an area of U.S. expansion in Syria, which it intends to use to pressure the Assad government and ultimately push back against Iran. For a long time Moscow was wary of seeing the SDF as a project of the United States in Syria, was advocating for their autonomy within Syria and for their inclusion in the negotiating process, something that both Ankara and Damascus rejected. But the situation has changed radically for Moscow with the U.S. now using the SDF-controlled area as a springboard for its “alternative state” within Syria. Russia’s recognition of this de facto situation as a threat to territorial integrity came at the second trilateral summit that was held between Turkey, Russia, and Iran in Ankara. In other words, the tension that has long been brewing between Russia and the U.S. in Syria was bound to have physical manifestations ultimately, and the chemical attack seems to have accelerated the process.
Both Russia and the United States find themselves disadvantaged as a result of the chemical attack in Douma and neither is likely to come out as the winner. It is another zero-sum game that has become a characteristic feature of the Syrian war. The Trump Administration could not let this attack go unpunished because it was a clear violation of the U.S. “red line” in Syria and was no different from the Khan Shaykhun attack a year ago. The dilemma for Donald Trump, however, is that targeted strikes at suspected Syrian chemical facilities are not effective as a deterrent, yet that is exactly what the entire military establishment in the U.S. and even Trump’s rivals deem an appropriate measure.
The escalation in Syria is coming against the backdrop of discussions in Washington about to what extent the U.S. military should remain involved in the Syrian conflict. While Donald Trump himself advocates pulling out of the country in due course, the Pentagon is opposed to this option and asks to ramp up America’s presence in Syria. Greater military involvement on Syrian soil means taking more responsibility for the course of the war that is not yet over and bracing for more confrontation with Iran and Russia. The chemical attack in Douma becomes that window of opportunity that the advocates of military expansion might use to push the U.S. president to launch a wider campaign against the Assad government, possibly backed by other international allies. Against the backdrop of such considerations, the Trump Administration is essentially left to choose between an ineffective measure and a disastrous measure, none of which in reality would be able to deliver a necessary message to Damascus.
Vladimir Putin’s options in Syria look no less encouraging at the moment. The U.S. strikes on Syria are disastrous for Russia since they invite some kind of retaliation, be it in the military or political domain. This is the paramount difference between the events linked to the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack and the use of chemical weapons in Douma. Back in April 2017, Moscow did not feel compelled to respond to the measures taken by the U.S. against the Assad government, to a large extent due to fears of escalation and due to the fact that Russia could use that strike to its own favor vis-a-vis Assad.
Moscow, however, has set its own “red lines” in Syria over the past years, not least due to American airstrikes that targeted Russia-linked forces in Deir Ez-Zor earlier this year. Policy makers in Moscow see tacit acceptance of more strikes in Syria as a recognition of the fact that Assad did, in fact, use chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta. But the Russian administration does not believe that this is the case because a chemical attack by Assad would contradict the status quo on the ground and Assad’s imminent victory in Eastern Ghouta. While giving a green light to an American military response is a bad option in itself, retaliation could prove an even less desirable option. The question for Moscow is not about shooting dozens of missiles over Syria, which it could do, but what would come afterward and what would happen if an American launch facility were to be targeted. This is an option that was clearly spelled out by the Russian military a few days ago and this is exactly what will lead to a full-on war between Moscow and Washington in Syria.
Another wild card in this standoff is Israel, which came into the picture suddenly when it struck the T4 base near Homs on April 9. Russia has so far managed to maintain a careful balance in its relations with Israel and has given it enough space for maneuver in southern Syria when its security was under threat. Israel’s latest incursion, however, caused an outcry in Moscow because Netanyahu has, in doing so, essentially picked up a fight that had nothing to do with Israel. What Vladimir Putin fears is, in fact, the U.S. making Netanyahu part of a wider international effort against the Assad government, which would change the dynamic of the Syrian war and impose a lot of limitations on Russia. The bottom-line for Moscow is that Russia and Israel should never engage in a military standoff over Syria and that Israel’s incursions into the Syrian territory will always be up to Assad to repel.
It seems that at this point both sides would have wanted this crisis to blow over but American strikes were unavoidable. Trump may use them to blow off some steam in the Pentagon and avoid further discussion of military expansion in Syria, while Russia has again demonstrated its commitment to an alliance with Assad and Iran. What is crucial to Russia at the moment is not letting its political settlement initiatives be derailed, which is why Moscow may see it as a necessity to give Trump some leeway in Syria.
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