After a week of rhetorical escalation between the US and Russia – much of it conducted on Twitter – missile strikes on Syria were finally carried out on Saturday. US, UK and French forces launched attacks on three sites allegedly linked to the production of chemical weapons near Damascus, as well as in the province of Homs.
Despite the pathos with which US President Donald Trump announced the military operation, its result turned out to be less than modest. Putting aside the contradictory reports on how many missiles struck their intended targets, they did not cause any military casualties and failed to inflict any serious damage on Syrian military infrastructure. Compared to the recent Israeli air raid on the T-4 base, the result of the April 14 strikes seems rather insignificant.
In this sense, the US, UK and French strikes were no different from the military action in April 2017, when after the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, the US bombed regime-operated Shayrat airfield.
The difference this year was that Washington blamed not only the Syrian regime for the chemical attack but also its patron, Moscow. This gave the situation a higher degree of tension, increasing speculations about a direct clash between the US and Russia.
Direct confrontation was predictably avoided, and the whole operation seemed to be no more than a “performance”.
Assad was content
The party that stood to benefit the most from this situation was the Syrian regime and its allies. There was no change in the balance of power on the ground as a result of the strikes and forces loyal to the Syrian regime suffered no losses.
A few hours after the strikes, Bashar al-Assad entered social media politics by posting a video of himself purportedly arriving triumphantly at his workplace in Damascus. Local and foreign media then showed scenes of Syrians celebrating in the streets.
Assad seemed to weather the media speculation storm quite well, too. Last year, the US attacks on Shayrat military base took people by surprise and left the international media speculating on the possibility of more serious US military actions against the regime. This year, after the “perfectly executed” strikes – as Trump described them – it became clear that there is nothing much behind the White House rhetoric except populism.
To Assad, it is clear that the US doesn’t have any strategy to resolve the Syrian conflict and is not even able to employ an effective mechanism to preclude the use of chemical weapons.
Russia was understanding
Last year, the Russian leadership saw the attack on Shayrat airfield as the least damaging solution for the domestic troubles Trump was facing.
This year too, Moscow understood that the strikes on Syria are not really in retribution for the alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma and definitely not an attempt to influence the outcome of the Syrian conflict. It was simply a demonstration of force.
What’s more, the fact that Washington was slow to undertake the strikes was perceived in Moscow as a manifestation of weakness and indecisiveness, which only gave confidence to the Russian leadership. As a result, Moscow afforded itself a certain degree of hostile rhetoric to accompany the coordination with Washington that ensured no damage was done to Russian assets on the ground.
Consultations between Russia and the United States appear to have taken place in the week prior to the US strikes. The fact that Moscow had confidence in this coordination was reflected in the presence of a delegation from the ruling United Russia Party headed by its secretary-general, Andrei Turchak, in Damascus, the day the strikes were conducted.
In the end, these “formal” strikes against Syria were the optimal solution for both countries to ease tension around the situation with chemical weapons in Douma. Moscow retained the status quo in Syria, and Washington formally fulfilled its promise and took a “principled” position.
The retaliatory strike ‘bluff’ and the Israeli air strikes
But what should we make of the heated exchange of threats prior to the strikes?
The talk about a possible escalation between the US and Russia in the Middle East has been widely discussed since the latter’s intervention in Syria in 2015. This year’s state of the nation address which Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered to the Federal Assembly upped the ante, as he mentioned the possibility of “instant retaliation” in case of an attack on Russia.
Retaliation threats were also issued just before the US-led strikes on Syria were carried out. The Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov said that Russia would take “retaliatory measures both on missiles and carriers that will use them”, if the lives of Russian troops were endangered.
If we take into account the fact that the US administration at least hypothetically considered the scenario of military intervention in Syria, Moscow had no choice but to bluff about “retaliatory measures”.
Like last year, nothing really happened after the strikes and the argument was that no action was taken because there was no threat to Russian military facilities. Expecting a different reaction from Moscow would be reckless. Despite the emotional rhetoric, the Russian leadership is trying not to cross the line and provoke a conflict.
A direct confrontation with a militarily superior US-led coalition would mean a complete defeat for Russia in Syria, not to mention that it could start a global armed conflict.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Russia has also not responded to repeated Israeli air raids in Syria. Over the past six months, Israel has consistently targeted Syrian infrastructure and military facilities.
In September, Israeli warplanes struck a weapons development centre in Hama province, a month later – an anti-aircraft battery near Damascus, and in December – weapons warehouses near the capital. In January and February, the Israeli Air Force struck various Syrian and Iranian military posts across Syria. Most recently, on April 9, Israel bombed the T-4 airbase in Homs province, killing several Iranian military officers. At the same time, in none of these cases did Russian air defence systems, including the S-300, the S-400 and the “Pantsir”, strike the attacking Israeli warplanes.
So clearly Russia has chosen a strategy of talking tough while making sure it does not take any risks on the ground.
That said, despite the lack of apparent escalation on the ground, rhetorical tensions should not be underestimated. There is a degree of unpredictability in the behaviour of actors on both sides in recent months, as well as increasing disregard for internationally accepted norms and procedures. This could prove dangerous in the future as it minimises the space for negotiations and diplomatic settlements.