Analysis

Trump Chose Not to Threaten Assad's Rule. The Question Is What Putin Will Do

The Kremlin said the strike was an insult to President Vladimir Putin, who denied the use of chemical weapons and relayed that Trump should avoid punitive measures

File photo: Putin addresses Russian troops at an the Hemeimeem air base in Syria in December, 2017.
Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

As much as anything could be expected in the world of Donald Trump, the punitive overnight strike in Syria was an obvious development. The U.S. president had long drawn a red line regarding the slaughter of civilians with chemical weapons, and, unlike his predecessor Barack Obama in 2013, he enforced that line.

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From the moment the scale of the massacre in Douma was revealed last week, it was quite clear that Trump saw an obligation to strike, even while supporting the withdrawal of the limited U.S. forces in Syria.

According to preliminary reports from Syria, the cruise missiles and bombs launched by U.S., British and French planes caused significant damage to the targets. Yet they don't seem to have significantly jeopardized the survival of Bashar Assad’s regime, which has withstood worse. And without a coordinated American effort to renew aid to rebel groups straining under Russian and Iranian pressure, there is no real danger hovering over the Syrian regime. Trump is showing no signs of going down that road. 

>> Live updates on Syria ■ Putin may limit Israel's operations in Syria in retaliation for strikes | Zvi Bar'el ■ Attack gives instant gratification but is much ado about nothing | Chemi Shalev ■ Strikes can't hide fact the world has abandoned the Syrian people | Anshel Pfeffer

Senior Pentagon officials said in a press conference that the strike's targets involved chemical and biological weapons production sites, chosen to minimize the risk of casualties among civilians and foreign troops. Defense Secretary James Mattis said the objective was to deter Assad and impair the regime's capability of using weapons of mass destruction in the future. If this is how the attack lines have been drawn, the United States doesn't seem to be shifting its strategy in Syria. Moreover, the West is in effect telling Assad that as far as it is concerned, he can continue to slaughter civilians as long as he doesn't do so with banned chemical weapons.

Responding to the Douma attack, Trump has taken the right step for the second time in a year. Will the balance of power in Syria shift as a result? That is doubtful. Journalists in Washington reported on a behind-the-scenes argument within the administration: Mattis and U.S. generals recommended a limited strike, fearing a clash with Syria; John Bolton, Trump's new, hawkish national security adviser, pushed for a more extensive attack. For now, it seems the generals have prevailed.

The main question now concerns the Russian response. The Kremlin has already said that the strike was an insult to President Vladimir Putin – who denied chemical weapons were used in Douma and relayed to Trump he should refrain from punitive measures. This also comes amid the ongoing investigation into Trump and his aides' contacts with Moscow on the eve of his election. The U.S. president, therefore, has additional reasons to demonstrate decisiveness when dealing with the Russians.

And yet it is doubtful we are on the eve of a third world war, as no side is showing any interest in such a prospect. The situation is dangerous but far from uncontrollable. As far as we know at this time, Israel's part is also quite marginal.

Several hours before the U.S. strike, two important statements were made on a different subject – the growing tensions between Israel and Iran in Syria. The Israeli military said the Iranian drone intercepted over Israel on February 10 was carrying weapons, and appears to have been on its way to explode over a military target. Furthermore, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in Beirut that the attack attributed to Israel earlier in the week – in which seven Iranian advisers were killed in Syria's T4 airbase – puts it in direct conflict with Tehran.

The IDF's announcement hinted at a connection between these last two incidents. In February, Israel also struck the T4 base and destroyed the command and control center from which the drone was launched. In other words, it is possible that this week's strike (which Israel has not officially taken responsibility for) was directed at a similar activity. One of those killed in the attack was the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' drone unit. One can assume, then, that Israel was acting to thwart the establishment of an active Iranian aerial compound inside the large Syrian base. 

The Israeli message is aimed at Putin and at Iranian President Hassan Rohani: Look at what Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran's elite Quds Force, is doing under your noses. Israel believes that Iran's military entrenchment in Syria, which only gathered strength in recent months after Assad's string of successes in the civil war, is aimed primarily at Jerusalem.

There is, of course, a wider process taking place. The Revolutionary Guards are spending tens of billions of dollars in wars across the Middle East: In Syria, aiding Hezbollah in Lebanon, helping the Houthi rebels in Yemen and to a lesser extent assisting Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip. Rohani is entangled in an economic crisis and a political confrontation with the hawkish, proactive forces led by the Revolutionary Guards. In Isfahan, virulent anti-government protests have been renewed in recent days. The value of Iran's currency is also taking a plunge.

Israel's current policy in Syria is sketched out in official statements, frequent publications in foreign media and strikes both owned and left unacknowledged. Israel is in effect saying that it can see Iran's activities, including its covert actions. The message is: We can strike Iranian interests and sites far from our border (the T4 base is some 250 kilometers from Israel); Iran is the one scheming to strike us, as it did with the drone in February, hence we have a right to carry out preemptive attacks in self-defense. The theater is a sweeping one - not just the Golan Heights, but deep in Syria.

Nasrallah's statements came on the heels of threats made this week by senior Tehran officials, including member of the Revolutionary Guards. Suleimani has turned the latest strike into a national event, organizing high-profile funerals for those killed at the base. By doing so, he is building an expectation of a violent Iranian retaliation, which does not escape Israeli eyes.

Still, the phrasing chosen by Hezbollah's chief is revealing. Nasrallah described an Israeli-Iranian conflict, and was in no hurry to volunteer his own men to lead the charge. With the upcoming elections for Lebanon's parliament on May 6, this is not the time for Nasrallah to portray himself as an Iranian agent. At the moment, Suleimani is all but alone in the ring. The question is whether he will succeed in dragging Iran’s other partners in the axis around Assad into revenge strikes and a clash with Israel - or whether his allies will have an interest in reining him in.