In deciding whether and how to strike Syrian government installations following last week’s chemical weapons attack, the US military might once have focused on inflicting real damage on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. Instead, through simple but ruthless plotting, Vladimir Putin has made this crisis – like so many others these days – all about Russia.
Much like President Barack Obama after an earlier, larger chemical strike in the Damascus suburbs in August 2013, President Donald Trump’s administration finds itself trapped by its own rhetoric. Like their predecessors, Trump administration officials are learning that prolonging their deliberations over a course of action makes physically taking it politically and militarily harder – and perhaps even pointless.
Predictably, Syrian government forces have reportedly moved into positions as close as possible to their Russian counterparts, betting – probably correctly – that the United States will be desperate to avoid hitting them. Even a significantly larger strike than the one Trump launched last year will do little to change the war on the ground. Assad has already all but won the six-year war, and has continued to entrench his position this week.
The Trump administration avoided this problem in the April 7, 2017 strikes by acting quickly – although that action, which Russia was warned of with very short notice, was also largely symbolic. Its planning was heavily the work of then-National Security Advisor HR McMaster. Last week’s attack on the rebel-held town of Douma, came just as John Bolton took over McMaster’s role, so the response has been slower and the administration more openly divided.
Both action and inaction now bring the risk of playing into Russia’s hands. The sheer level of force the United States has moved to the Mediterranean – with the aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman sailing from Norfolk, Virginia last week – is a potent reminder that Washington’s military clout and reach still far eclipses Putin’s. The fact that it was necessary to take such a step, however, is also an unmistakable sign of weakness.
The most likely scenario remains a limited US strike with no Russian conventional military retaliation. If Putin does respond, it is more likely to be in a more ambiguous way, such as by stepping up his war in Western-allied Ukraine. Still, Moscow clearly wants the United States and its allies to remember just how much damage it could do if it wished.
Ironically, a Russian-US deal remains the best hope of stopping the escalating confrontation within Syria between Iran and Israel. Israel has stepped up attacks on what it believes are Iranian targets within the country, while Tehran is seen increasingly encouraging its local proxies – particularly Hamas and Hezbollah – to target the Jewish state. To talk, however, Moscow and Washington must stabilise this standoff – and for now, signs point the other way.
Russia’s post-2015 military interventions in Syria, like its actions in Ukraine the previous year and in Georgia in 2008, have been a master class in how to achieve significant strategic effect with relatively few forces. In facing down its enemies – which now clearly include the United States and NATO – Moscow has always relied on the threat of its larger military clout, particularly nuclear force. On the Syria front over the last week, Russian officials have openly raised the threat of war between the nuclear superpowers, an unmistakable attempt to stop the West from acting.
Russia understands that any discussion of chemical weapons and classified evidence is likely to remind Western leaders – and electorates – of the incorrect intelligence on weapons of mass destruction that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Its online and broadcast outlets have been making such comparisons relentlessly, a sign of how central information warfare has become to Russia’s wider strategy.
Some Kremlin watchers even suspect that Moscow may be deliberately goading Trump and the West into striking, hoping to deepen domestic divisions in Western countries and to justify whatever Putin’s next move might be.
Significantly, Russian forces appear to have been directly interfering in the actions of their US counterparts in a way previously unseen. This has reportedly included meddling with US GPS signals in a way that has apparently affected the operations of American drones; Russian officials have warned of worse, including shooting down US missiles and perhaps even targeting the aircraft and ships that fired them.
This sort of thing isn’t entirely new. Russia is widely suspected to have interfered with GPS signals before, in both the Black Sea and the Baltic. Aggressive Russian over-flights of US and other allied military vessels have become increasingly common. Using such tactics in a high-stakes international confrontation like this, however, is a significant escalation – and sets precedents Moscow will likely rely on in any future face-offs.
For all the rhetoric and the very real danger of miscalculation, neither Washington nor Moscow wants to start a major war over Syria. Indeed, they may well not even wish to risk using their most sophisticated weapons. If Russia can indeed shoot down US cruise missiles, it may decide to keep that technology under wraps. Similarly, the risk of weaponry falling into Russian hands means the United States may well hold back some of its cutting-edge technology too, saving it for a battle that matters more.
Therein lies one of the greatest challenges of this situation. In 1990, after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the George H. W. Bush administration was relieved to find that Russia – then still in the hands of Mikhail Gorbachev – was inclined to avoid turning the conflict into a Cold War-style standoff. In the years that followed, successive US presidents became used to acting without such worries. Putin has now successfully signalled that those days are entirely over.