Following the U.S. cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base on Thursday night, which the Trump administration said was in retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack by Bashar al-Assad’s government, Syria Deeply asked our expert community about some of the most pressing questions raised by the crisis. In the first installment of this series, we asked experts how they think Russia will respond, and what its options and incentives are.
Hassan Hassan, coauthor of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” and senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy: Moscow knows the strikes were not meant to threaten the regime. But the strikes are humiliating and bring back the U.S. as a forceful actor in the Syrian conflict, after a period of Russian dominance and leverage in the country vis-a-vis the U.S., Turkey and Israel. The focus of Moscow now will be to ensure that not the strikes but the potential American follow-up to the strikes do not threaten the gains it made over the past two years. We saw a similar dynamic playing out between Russia and Turkey after the latter downed a Russian warplane in 2015. The escalation and counter-escalation led to a positive outcome for Russia, whereby Turkey chose to cooperate with a now dominant Russia in northern Syria sometimes at the expense of its rebel proxies there.
Valerie Szybala, executive director, the Syria Institute: This is the key to all of this. Russia has always been a supporter of the regime and providing military aid to the regime, but once it directly intervened in 2015, everyone wrote off the potential for U.S. intervention. Countless times, I’ve heard it written and said, “Even if we wanted to do XYZ, no fly zone, target strike, we can’t because it would start a war with Russia and no one wants that.” The thing is, it hasn’t been tested before.
Russia, until now, has been able to get away with protecting the regime of Assad from attack simply politically, by leading negotiations or holding talks or at the U.N., and certainly blocking resolutions. It’s never been tested to protect it militarily. If you want to look at what the government of Syria would do if it was suicide-pacting itself, it could unleash a chemical arsenal as kind of a last stand. But I think short of that, if you saw a real major offensive with heavy Russian air power of the type we saw in Aleppo, that would probably be considered a pretty belligerent response, [especially] if it were targeting civilians and U.S.-supported groups on the ground. An attempt to strike U.S. forces would probably be the most dangerous response they could have [but] I don’t think they are going to [do that]. That’s the world war option, direct attack on U.S. forces. The status quo is them leveraging themselves to power by pushing right up against the boundaries of what the world will tolerate, [like with the] invasion of Ukraine and Syria, but keeping it within the lines of, it’s not worth the risk of intervention by other countries to stop them.
Rami G. Khouri, director, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut: I think we’ve basically seen the response. They’re going to criticize it and condemn it, and ask the U.N. to meet, and basically step aside while the U.S. does its deed, because they can’t really do much about it as far as we can tell. And they don’t want to get involved in a war with the United States. So I wouldn’t expect to see any significant change in their policy. The question about Iran and Russia is, how long can they continue this level of support for Assad, in material terms, financial terms, military terms and political terms? How long can they keep doing what they are doing in Syria to support Assad, to keep him as the incumbent president who controls about a quarter of the country without the price being too high for them in the long term?
Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies, University of Denver: There’s a meeting of Putin’s National Security Council as we talk, and they have vowed that they will respond. I’m not sure what options they have in terms of a response. Many people today are saying that it’s significant that Russia just placed air defenses in Syrian territory that could have taken out those Tomahawk cruise missiles [but] did not choose to use those air defenses when it had the option to do so. That is an interesting, I think, observation about Russia’s policy toward the event and Donald Trump’s new aggressive stance toward Syria. I think we have to wait and see. I suspect that Russia will likely not do very much if this is simply a one-off event, but if there is more of a sustained campaign of further U.S. airstrikes on Syrian targets, then I think there will be a significant global crisis that we’ll have on our hands. I don’t think Russia really has a lot of cards that it can play.
Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow, Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies: They do what they’ve already been doing, which is to come against the 2015 framework, the memorandum of understanding tied to deconflicting in Syria’s airspace. There is the potential that this could make the U.S. operations against ISIL far more complex. It could put U.S. men and women in uniform either in Iraq or in Syria in a much more hostile setting where the Russians can also opt for choices that make them seem a bit more ambiguous. And it could go back further to whether the Russians will feel the need to counter-escalate, and that doesn’t have to involve something as complicated or as taboo as chemical weapons, it can be providing a level of aid, providing capabilities that challenge the U.S. to find a response.
The fact that the Russians are physically there, operating a significant air defense platform entrenched in an effort to build up and restructure the Syrian military, these are all things that complicate how the U.S. manages this. And I don’t think the folks in the administration have given up on this idea that they need the Russians in the long term. This is just a one-off event. It will be judged against the backdrop of an event that basically changes the status quo. But how it’ll change it is not clear. [If] the U.S. and Russia can look at this as an opportunity and say we’ve clearly gone a bit too far, or we’ve pushed things to a new level of intensity and potential risk, let’s sit down and hammer out a new framework that we can abide by, that’s probably the best case, when it comes to the U.S. and Russia.
These statements have been edited for length and clarity.
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