Ever since Donald Trump arrived in the White House, there has been much talk of a great thaw in relations between the US and Russia. But his decision to carry out airstrikes in Syria in retaliation against Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people has brought that speculation to an abrupt end.
All the reasons why President Obama decided against military strikes in Syria in 2013 are still there – and some of them are even more pertinent now. In fact, the political motivation for removing Assad is even less clear than it was then. The moderate opposition to his regime has essentially ceased to matter on the ground. To take Assad out now is to leave the field open to various jihadist groups. They are hardly a preferable replacement for Assad.
As a result of this unilateral action, the danger of a direct military clash with Russia is much higher than it was in 2013. Moscow has since firmly established its military presence in Syria by operating an expanded naval base and a new air base. It has multiple military advisers, special forces units, and semi-private troops involved to support Assad. Hitting Assad will increasingly feel much more like hitting the Russians. Syria has become the testing ground for the battle of the wills between Putin and Trump.
Moscow has invested heavily in supporting the Syrian regime and its plan has worked so far. Assad is more secure militarily than he was before Russian involvement. Major regional players such as Turkey have abandoned their aim of removing Assad from power and are in talks about what Syria’s future looks like based on the assumption that he will stay in power.
The US seemed to move towards similar position only a week before the airstrike and it’s still mind-boggling what possessed the Assad regime to use chemical weapons in such circumstances. Equally puzzling is what exactly made Trump change his mind so dramatically. This is not, after all, the first time chemical weapons have been used in Syria and he himself urged Obama not to take action the last time round.
Although the Russians were given advance warning that the US was about to attack, that might not always be possible in the future if the aim is to inflict real damage on Assad’s forces.
So, if the new aim of the Trump administration is the removal of Assad from power – rather than just showing up Obama – this could only happen through a major confrontation with Russia. In the absence of any effective military alternative to Assad, it would also require a much greater role for the US military in Syria, and eventual responsibility for what happens after Assad’s removal.
Of course, the opposition to a policy of regime change was one of Trump’s most consistent messages before he became president. It’s unclear if Trump thought all this through, or if the urge to project an image of a tough president overrode any other considerations.
Moscow’s response to Trump’s intervention has been to up the ante. In addition to the usual diplomatic protestations, the Russians have suspended a deal with the US to prevent mid-air collisions over Syria and announced new plans to strengthen Syrian air defences. They have also diverted a frigate armed with cruise missiles to the eastern Mediterranean.
The long-term consequences will depend on what Trump does now. It seems that despite the rhetoric, the new administration’s policy in the Middle East has been remarkably similar to that of its predecessors. Very little has actually changed in material terms.
The strikes against Assad are very much in line with traditional Washington thinking and have been urged by US foreign establishment figures. In fact, the recent removal of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council has been interpreted as a sign that the nationalist, revolutionary elements in Trump’s administration are on the wane, and the forces that traditionally shape US foreign policy are gaining the upper hand.
Russia’s hope was that Trump would make a positive difference, based on his new worldview: America first. The idea that American material interest would be given priority over human rights and liberal values is quite close to Putin’s approach. For him, realism beats idealism when it comes to foreign policy. But this alignment could only work if there’s room for a deal, rather than a conflicting interest.
Syria was supposed to be the main area where a deal with Russia was possible, since defeating IS is in both countries’ interests. There were some steps taken to that effect, such as the meeting with the chiefs of staffs, and de facto cooperation in the north of Syria.
Had Trump continued to emphasise the need to take on IS, he could have opened the possibility of a wider cooperation with Russia, perhaps paving the way for a wider rapprochement between the two countries. These hopes seem to have been premature at best. Taking on Assad sets him against Russia. So now, the focus must now be on preventing armed conflict between the two powers.