The dilemma faced by decision-makers in the United States, Britain and France wasn’t whether to strike Syria – Donald Trump had already announced that he would. The dilemma was how to carry out a measured attack under the given political conditions.
The main concern is a Russian response that may lead to an escalation or even an international clash on the Syrian front. The speed with which U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis announced that the assault was a “one-time shot,” coupled with the limited number of precise targets, imply that the “tripartite aggression,” as Iran dubbed the strike, was meant mainly to send a tough message – but not much more than that. (And by using the term “tripartite aggression,” Iran was borrowing from what the Arab world calls the Sinai war of 1956.)
This message conforms with the West’s commitment against unconventional weapons – even though in Syria, the conventional weapons are the ones killing hundreds of thousands of people. Yet even a “red line” against chemical weapons begs an explanation for why this week’s incident triggered the strike and not the dozens of times chemical weapons have been used (aside for the chemical attack a year ago in Khan Sheikhoun near Idlib).
The strike doesn’t indicate a change in American strategy and involvement in Syria, either. Trump’s policy still holds that U.S. forces should withdraw from the country and that the administration doesn't intend to take part in the Russian-led political efforts to resolve the crisis.
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It’s also hard to see the strike as a showcase of a Western coalition determined to act against chemical weapon stockpiles or bring about regime change. The absence from the strike of Germany, Italy and other Western countries that were a part of the anti-ISIS coalition underscores the difference of opinion over the military response. Perhaps even more so, it reflects the schism between Trump and America’s allies that may affect military campaigns or diplomatic policies down the line.
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In Israeli eyes, the attack doesn’t resolve Israel’s “private” issue with Syria and Iran. These are two different matters, but they affect each other. We can assume that part of the expected Russian response will be limiting Israel’s use of Syrian airspace to attack Iranian targets.
In other words, Russia is in no hurry to retaliate militarily, but it can punish the main aggressor’s ally. Such a response would relay a double message: one for Washington as Israel’s patron and one for Israel as a country violating Syrian sovereignty – that is, the Russian monopoly.
Iran, despite its threats (and warnings by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah) has so far offered a vague response. It branded the three attacking countries “criminals” and blamed the United States and its allies for “violating Syria’s sovereignty in violation of international law.” But Tehran, unlike Trump who promised “nice, new and smart” missiles, didn’t specify what the consequences would be or how it would respond.
Between Syria, Russia and Iran, it’s the Islamic Republic that finds itself in the most sensitive position. Next month Trump will decide on the future of the nuclear agreement, and Tehran doesn’t intend to jeopardize the agreement by taking action against the United States, or even more so, against Britain or France.
The swift plunge in the Iranian currency, the domestic unrest over the economy and the struggle against new economic sanctions all force Iran to tread with caution vis-à-vis Israel as well, as Jerusalem is perceived as wielding significant influence over decisions by Trump and Congress. Syria has no real capability to respond to the triple attack, and it doesn’t seem it plans to open a front against Israel. Therefore, the burden of response now falls on Russia.
The Russian response will depend on a cold profit-and-loss calculation, but also on factors that have to do with prestige. Moscow can define the attack as a grave mistake by the United States and its allies, but as long as Russian targets and territory weren’t attacked, the superpower theater can go on at the United Nations.
On the other hand, Russia could depict the strike as an attack that targeted an ally, and thus one that requires a response. We can assume Russia will go for the first option, because the strike relieves it of responsibility for Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons – and of its role as Syria’s chaperone. During Barack Obama’s presidency, Russia committed to dismantling Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile to prevent an attack on Syria.
Traditionally, Russia engages in a policy of diplomatic prevention (using its veto power) to thwart the West’s punitive steps against Syria. It has operated on the ground only against rebel militias, not against countries that funded or cooperated with them.
Since 2015, when Russia began its military involvement in Syria, it has successfully acted against other countries’ involvement in the country. A sudden response to the strike on Syria could undermine these efforts and give Western countries a new reason to intervene.