A chemical weapons attack in Syria was beyond the threshold of the West, and a military reaction was inevitable.
However, for America and its allies, the real conflict is not with Syria, it’s with Russia.
Putting action to his words, on 14 April 2018, US President Donald Trump ordered missile and aircraft strikes against three Syrian targets suspected to be facilities for research, development, and manufacture or storage of chemical weapons (CW). British and French forces also joined the US in carrying out the joint attack, which was executed by cruise missiles and aircraft from the naval deployment in the Mediterranean and facilities in Cyprus.
Specifically, the targets involved a research and development facility in the Greater Damascus area and two storage cum command and control facilities in the vicinity of Homs. Russia has reported that the Syrian air defence systems intercepted 71 of the 103 cruise missiles. In addition, six Syrian airfields were also struck. The damage assessment reports are yet to indicate anything. The Russian initial response has been to threaten retaliation. There has been condemnation by Syria, Iran and Hizbollah too.
It would be recalled that the US, the UK and France were mulling appropriate military action after a suspected CW attack at the Syrian township of Douma, held by the rebel forces, killed 43 civilians on 7 April 2018 and injured many more. Russia and Syria denied that CWs were used but for President Trump CWs have been a red line all along, having once before ordered missile strikes in the past on the basis of reports of their usage. The way to view the emerging situation in the Syrian war front is to assume that military strikes of any kind are unlikely to put an end to the war or assist in any kind of victory for the Free Syrian Army. The war itself is far too complex for any straight victories. It is thus a question of display of will, issues of war ethics and morals and the larger war by proxy being fought between Russia and the Western allies in other parts of the world in different domains.
Lack of action by the West would be viewed by Russia and its allies (Iran, Syria and Hizbollah) as a clear sign of weakness, indecision and lack of appetite for military engagement. Thus even if the strikes may not have had their desired military effect, it is the strategic messaging, which was essential for the West more than anything else.
Confrontation between the US and Russia has been emerging into a new ‘cold war’ for some time now. More seriously, the UK-Russia relationship has seen much turbulence too, especially after the Salisbury nerve attack on former MI6 alleged double agent, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who were poisoned using a nerve agent; suspected to be the handiwork of Russian agents. The Ukraine crisis had already triggered a modern day hybrid war with Russia employing cyber and information warfare. The US too has been seething under alleged Russian pro-activist intervention in the field of US politics. Dealing with Russia has been a frustrating experience for the West and seeing ground slip to Russian influence in the entire Levant hasn’t been one bit gratifying.
The CW attacks were probably viewed as the last straw in testing the waters of the West’s patience and appetite. A lack of response may have appeared to be a lack of appetite for military confrontation. To that extent Trump and his allies have risked a greater conflagration which is however, highly unlikely despite current rhetoric. Care was taken to ensure no Russian equipment or personnel came in harm’s way. In fact many would say that with calibration it is easier contesting Russia here in the Middle East than anywhere else. The actual contestation lies in cyber and social media space, Ukraine, Crimea and the relationship with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) but it manifests in messaging here.
For the US as the leader of the international community and the UK and France, major partners in liberal values and human rights, not reacting to a CW attack would be tantamount to yielding space beyond the acceptable. It would be perceived as virtually sanctioning Iran in its possible usage tomorrow or any of its other allies such as Hizbollah. It would also be perceived as giving leeway to proliferation of other weapons of mass destruction. Russia’s military presence in Syria and the Levant, however, complicates the actions against the usage of CWs.
The question which still begs is why Bashar Al Assad in an apparent position of strength in the civil war would wish to complicate matters by bringing in triggers which he knows would result in a Western response. For that matter what defies logic is why Iran, which has much influence over Al Assad, would allow such usage knowing that it would accrue no major strategic or operational value. Is there a deeper game to it or did Al Assad just overestimate the deterrence effect of Russian presence? As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia’s responsibility also extends to the neutralisation of use of CWs.
To be fair to Russia, the murky game of hybrid warfare plays many ways. The CW actions could well have been a set up by rebel groups, which too are known to possess some CWs, to invite strikes on the Al Assad forces by the West. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, claimed Moscow had “irrefutable” evidence that the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria was staged. The complexity of the issue can be gauged by the fact that on 9 April eight missiles were apparently fired on Tiyas Military Airbase in Syria by two Israeli jets resulting in the death of seven Iranians and seven others.
After the CW attack on 7 April the rebel groups too had agreed to vacate the area and the Syrians were awaiting the commencement of investigation by a team of Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The United Nations on the other hand was hamstrung by a set of vetoes on investigation thus delaying any possible ways to determine the truth. Thus, are the strikes against the Syrian facilities justified in the absence of any proof based on an investigation?
In international strategic power games too much rationalising leads to paralysis. That perhaps was the advice of US National Security Adviser John Bolton. More than just the situation in the Middle East it is the ongoing larger confrontation with Russia which while becoming a new cold war is forcing the West to send home messages to Russia and its allies of their refusal to be cowed down. This is possibly just a trailer although a Russian retaliation is highly unlikely. The Middle East will in all probability slink back to its known normal in a matter of a few days but the uncertainties are unlikely to die down.