The relationship between Russia and the United States continues to spiral downward. Indeed, the rhetoric emanating from both Moscow and Washington, D.C., has been so belligerent in recent weeks that one could say the restraint of the Cold War has been replaced by recklessness—a recklessness that could result in a military clash between two nuclear-armed powers. In March, for instance, the chief of Russia’s general staff, General Valery Gerasimov, warned that if Russian personnel in Syria were targeted by the United States, Russia would “take retaliatory measures both over the missiles and carriers that will use them.”
A military clash between the United States and Russia was avoided. But what did each country gain or lose?
Then, on April 8, after Syria used chemical weapons against rebels in Douma, President Donald Trump tweeted that President Vladimir Putin and Russia would have a “big price to pay” for backing “Animal Assad,” a.k.a. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Given the entrenched animus toward Russia in the U.S. Congress, Trump’s administration was under pressure to act forcefully, and the arrival of hawkish John Bolton as national security advisor raised expectations. The Russian media added to the tension by stoking a war scare, even insinuating that the United States was preparing for nuclear war against Russia.
Instead, however, Cold War–era caution prevailed. On April 14, a U.S.-led coalition launched missile strikes that, according to the United States, hit and destroyed three targets “specifically associated with the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons program.” The coalition—France, Great Britain, and the United States—took pains to ensure that no Russians would be killed. The Russian leadership was almost certainly forewarned, even if it was not given details of the coalition’s plans. Hours before the attack, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Putin about Syria by telephone, and the U.S. and Russian militaries were in continual contact throughout the crisis, using the “deconfliction” procedures established in 2015 to avert accidents in Syria’s crowded airspace.
In the end, there were no Russian casualties, and the United States moved quickly to wind down the crisis. Secretary of Defense James Mattis stressed that the strikes were a one-off, even though Trump had, moments earlier, promised a sustained campaign to punish Syria’s use of chemical weapons. And two days after the strikes, Trump reversed, saying that there would not be any new sanctions on Russia after all.
Deterring Assad from any further use of chemical weapons would require a long-term U.S. commitment.
In response to the strikes, Russia limited itself to harsh rhetoric, which was largely for domestic consumption anyway. Predictably, Putin denounced U.S. aggression and accused the United States of violating international law and pandering to the terrorists in Syria. Russia proposed a UN Security Council resolution along similar lines, even though defeat was certain given that France, Great Britain, and the United States could have vetoed it. As it happened, they did not have to: a majority of council members voted against the resolution or abstained.
Thus a military clash between Russia and the United States was avoided. But given all the sound and fury, what did the strikes against the Syrian government actually accomplish? What does each country stand to gain and lose? And how can either move forward?
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The United States felt compelled to do something after images and video showed the horrific aftermath of the chemical attack in Douma. The consensus in the press and in Congress was that U.S. credibility as the guardian of international norms was on the line.
Trump himself probably also felt bound to act. He launched a retaliatory attack just a year prior after a similar incident in Syria and, since assuming office, has berated Barack Obama for not enforcing the line against chemical attacks that Obama had drawn in 2013. (Trump conveniently overlooked the fact that he had then urged Obama not to attack so that the United States would not be sucked into another Middle Eastern quagmire).
Yet it is far from clear that the strikes will achieve the stated objective of deterring Assad from further chemical attacks. The Syrian president uses them to sap the rebels’ morale and spare his overstretched troops from costly urban warfare—and it works. Shortly after the chemical attack in Douma, the rebel forces negotiated an agreement with the Syrian government to abandon the region for rebel-held areas in Idlib province.
Moreover, this strike and Trump’s previous one were launched after Assad was suspected of using sarin, a nerve agent. In the interlude, Assad continued to use chlorine bombs, and the Trump administration did nothing to stop him beyond issuing occasional ritualistic condemnations.
While Assad may be winning, Russia remains trapped in Syria, unable to depart despite having declared victory three times.
Deterring Assad from any further use of chemical weapons would require a long-term U.S. commitment and the sustained use of firepower, perhaps even against the pillars of the Syrian state. Yet Trump has been clear about his unwillingness to be pulled into Syria’s civil war. Less than two weeks before this most recent air strike, Trump talked about rapidly withdrawing all U.S. forces from Syria after the final defeat of the remnants of the Islamic State still operating there.
Any effort to remove Assad from power would also significantly increase the risk of a confrontation with Russia, something that Trump, despite his bravado before the attacks, appears determined to avoid. He still insists it would be great if the United States and Russia could work together.
The Kremlin too has no interest in seeing the United States drawn more deeply into the fight. The tide of battle has turned in favor of Assad since Putin dispatched Russian troops to Syria in 2015. Assad has now extended his sway over much of the populated, western parts of the country by chipping away at the armed opposition’s last bastions. A large-scale U.S. attack would threaten to bring down the Syrian government and nullify Russia’s strategic gains, thus confronting Putin with a Hobson’s choice: retaliate against the United States for the latest missile strikes and risk a conflagration, or do nothing and appear weak.
But there is no sign Putin will have to face such a choice. The latest U.S. strikes against Syria, if they are indeed the one-off that Secretary Mattis said they were, are symbolic—they will not alter the strategic equation or the battlefield arithmetic. The United States can only do so through a massive intervention.
Neither Trump nor his electoral base wants that. His leeriness to commit ground troops to Syria is evident from his reliance on the 30,000-strong Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the campaign against the Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria. (Some 2,000 U.S. troops are on the ground to train and advise the SDF.) Given Trump’s unwillingness to do what it would really take to oust Assad and his lack of enthusiasm for ramping up the sanctions on Russia, Moscow will not pay much of a price for its unflagging support of Assad.
Still, Russia has not escaped unharmed. The coalition strike highlighted once again Russia’s failure to ensure the elimination of Assad’s chemical weapons, something it pledged to do back in 2013. Russia’s dogged insistence that Assad was not responsible for the Douma attack has not proved convincing, as evidenced by the defeat of its UN Security Council resolution. Even Kazakhstan, which normally would have voted in Russia’s favor, decided to abstain.
The hard truth is that Russia needs U.S. cooperation and money to end the conflict in Syria. Putin knows that.
Furthermore, as was true a year ago, Russia could not prevent the United States and its allies from striking against its client, Assad. Russia has implied that it did not have to use its own armaments to defend its ally because Syria’s Soviet-supplied air defense missiles had destroyed 71 of 103 incoming cruise missiles. But the photographic evidence of the destruction inflicted by U.S., British, and French missiles hardly makes Russia look good. The failure to defend Assad from a U.S. attack will not go unnoticed in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Moreover, while Assad may be winning, Russia remains trapped in Syria, unable to depart despite having declared victory three times. The reality is that Assad could not survive for long without Russian air support and Iranian and Hezbollah fighters. Thus Russia remains tethered to him and cannot depart without a diplomatic solution to the civil war, which does not appear in the offing.
Meanwhile, Syria remains a ruin. Its economy has been all but destroyed; its society has been torn asunder. The country will be unstable for years to come, and neither Russia nor Iran has the economic resources to rebuild it.
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The hard truth, in the end, is that Russia needs U.S. cooperation and money to end the conflict and make Syria whole and stable. Putin knows that. On the eve of Russia’s intervention in 2015, Putin appealed to the West to form a “broad international coalition against terrorism” before the UN General Assembly. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov worked assiduously for many months to achieve a workable diplomatic solution—to no avail.
That effort came to a halt with the Trump administration, not for a lack of interest on the Kremlin’s part but because of the rising anti-Russian sentiment in Washington and the continuing suspicions about possible collusion between the Trump team and the Kremlin. Without a U.S. option, Putin has sought a solution in cooperation with Turkey and Iran but has so far come up empty-handed: it lacks both money and credibility with the various rebel groups fighting Assad.
A resolution in Syria—and an honorable Russian exit from the conflict—requires a restoration of a minimally functional United States–Russia relationship. That will require dealing with the key obstacles, including the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s election meddling. Putin thought it would be the other way around: that the U.S. fear of terrorism was so great (and Europe’s alarm at refugees flowing out of the Middle East so deep) that Washington would look the other way on Ukraine and election meddling so as to work closely with Russia in Syria.
Putin miscalculated in 2015. Now, with the Islamic State on the verge of defeat in Syria, the lure of counterterrorist cooperation there has lost much of its luster, but the conflict continues to be fueled by the competing geopolitical interests of outside powers, including Russia and the United States.
Neither Moscow nor Washington, however, is prepared to make the hard choices and necessary compromises to restore the broken relationship. A diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis is nowhere to be seen. The devastation of Syria continues, as does the carnage. Meanwhile, the risk of a direct U.S.–Russian military conflict persists with no guarantee that in the next mini-crisis, reckless rhetoric will yield to prudence.