Whether one believes they were the long-overdue response to the Syrian regime’s brutality, a one-off event that will not affect the conflict’s trajectory, a risky step that could prompt military escalation or all of the above, the 7 April U.S. missile strikes on Syria’s Shayrat air base in response to the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons should be seized upon as an opportunity to jumpstart diplomatic efforts. The strikes have heightened tension between Moscow and Washington. Yet, this added volatility and the risks attached to it could and should prompt more serious pursuit by the two countries of their purportedly common interest: de-escalating violence sufficiently to establish a meaningful political track. This can be best achieved by deepening rather than breaking off U.S.-Russian cooperation.
The Trump administration framed its strikes, involving 59 Tomahawk missiles fired from two U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean, as a proportional response to what both the U.S. and such independent on-the-ground observers as the group Médecins sans Frontières concluded was a sarin attack near the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun on the Damascus-Aleppo highway on 4 April. It identified the target as the air base from which it said the aircraft that carried out the attack had taken off. It highlighted efforts to alert Moscow beforehand and avoid casualties among both Russian and Syrian personnel. And it noted that while the decision to punish the regime militarily for chemical attacks was new, its broader policy of prioritising the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and pinning the hoped-for departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the results of a political process remains in place. In other words, the military action appeared intended to be narrow in scope, an attempt at limiting risk but offering correspondingly relatively modest rewards: deterrence of further chemical attacks.
In the U.S. and Europe, as well as in many Middle East countries, the Trump administration’s decision brought relief to those who had bemoaned President Obama’s reluctance to order more forceful U.S. military action to protect Syrian civilians from regime atrocities and, for some, even oust the regime. Others deemed it a risky gambit, taken impulsively and outside the framework of a forward-looking strategy, that would not change the fundamental course of the war and inadvertently could trigger an escalation, if not a direct military confrontation, with Russia or Iran. Some saw it as a bit of both: a welcome response that only would make sense – and avoid unintended consequences – if immediately accompanied by efforts to put Syria’s collapsed ceasefire and faltering political talks back on track.
Now that both sides have made their largely symbolic moves, the moment has arrived to return to diplomacy and de-escalate tensions.
The risks are indeed significant. If, for example, regime chemical attacks were to continue (perhaps employing chlorine instead of the much deadlier nerve agent sarin), the U.S. might find itself compelled to launch additional, more significant strikes and accept the increased risks, or forfeit whatever deterrent effect and credibility boost it had hoped to achieve. High-casualty regime attacks employing other weapons, such as barrel bombs, likewise may generate pressure on Washington to decide whether to expand its deterrence or be seen as signalling that atrocities that do not involve poison gas are tolerable. There also is the related challenge of managing U.S. allies in Syria and the broader region, whose expectations may now rise disproportionately to what the White House is willing to do in their support.
The biggest risk, direct escalation with the regime’s principal backers, Russia and Iran, can be expected to grow in the event of additional U.S. strikes. Iran’s militia network has the capacity to retaliate against U.S. interests throughout the region. Moscow presents an even bigger and more immediate concern: Russian and U.S. jets share the Syrian skies, and Russian personnel and equipment are integral components of the regime’s air-defence systems. This means not only that Moscow can severely constrain Washington’s capacity to carry out airstrikes crucial to its efforts against ISIS in eastern Syria, but also that an accident or miscommunication involving aircraft or ground personnel could set off an extremely dangerous escalatory spiral. Underlining this concern is the fact that Moscow has already announced its intentions to suspend participation in the de-confliction channel its forces and those of the U.S. use and beef up the regime’s air defences. It also has dispatched a frigate carrying cruise missiles to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Now that both sides have made their largely symbolic moves, the moment has arrived to return to diplomacy and de-escalate tensions, lest an opportunity be wasted and the situation spin out of control. Despite the brief display of U.S. military muscle, Russia remains in the driver’s seat in the Syrian conflict, given its assets on the ground and in the air, as well as its alliance with the regime, Iran, Hizbollah and associated militias. While Washington can hope to influence Moscow’s behaviour, Russia doubtless will take the lead in shaping the course of events.
During a visit to Moscow that coincided with the Khan Sheikhoun attack and the U.S. missile strike, Crisis Group encountered deep frustration about the presumed lack of U.S. appreciation for what Moscow considers to be its constructive effort to end the war and prevent the country’s dissolution. Despite the public bluster, Russia is also clearly weary of further escalation and a complete unravelling of its diplomatic efforts at effecting a ceasefire and jumpstarting political talks, and apprehensive about the soundness of its Syrian ally. Some Russian analysts also expressed concern about the damage Russia’s reputation might suffer from what they considered the regime’s graphic and blatant breach of an agreement on the regime’s chemical arsenal and chemical weapons use that Moscow itself initiated. (This is the 2013 U.S.-Russian agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program, and UN Security Council Resolution 2118 endorsing that agreement.)
Whatever wisdom one might assign to the latest U.S.-Russian tit-for-tat, it has potential to advance a better way forward. Rather than merely seeking to restore the pre-2013 status quo concerning non-use of chemical weapons, the U.S. and Russia should take steps jointly to prevent a direct confrontation and pursue what both have identified as an immediate interest: reducing violence between the regime and its non-jihadist opponents. This is essential to save lives but also could enable a shift of resources toward the fight against ISIS; obstruct efforts by Tahrir al-Sham (a jihadist coalition led by a former al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra) to assert hegemony over the opposition’s non-jihadist factions; and, over time, pave the way for a credible political process.
The first step should be to define the terms of a viable ceasefire between the regime and non-jihadist opposition. Elements of truces attempted in 2016 and early 2017 could provide starting points. Trading U.S. counter-terror coordination with Moscow in exchange for an end to regime air attacks outside ISIS-held areas merits renewed discussion. Including Turkey, Iran and Jordan as co-guarantors alongside Moscow and Washington would be necessary to achieve a critical mass of leverage over the warring Syrian parties. Recognising spheres of influence held by the conflict’s many players is nobody’s idea of a perfect peace, but currently it offers the most realistic path to a sustained de-escalation that could create space for a political process addressing Syria’s governance and geopolitical dilemmas.
The U.S. and Russia should take steps jointly to prevent a direct confrontation and pursue what both have identified as an immediate interest: reducing violence between the regime and its non-jihadist opponents.
For a new ceasefire to succeed where others have failed, however, Russia, the U.S. and their regional partners will have to be more realistic in addressing the challenges posed by Tahrir al-Sham, which dominates much of the rebel-held north west and holds territory close to non-jihadist forces. Its exclusion from previous truces has increased its incentives to act as a spoiler and provided a loophole through which the regime and its allies have continued to pummel opposition-held areas (using its presence, real or fabricated, as a pretext). To have any chance of success, a ceasefire must include – at least for a defined period – areas in which Tahrir al-Sham is present but does not exert unilateral control. This would provide time, space and political capital for the U.S. and Turkey to work with rebel allies to address the Tahrir al-Sham problem before it strangles them.
Though they support opposing sides, Washington and Moscow appear more realistic about the need for eventual compromise than their respective Syrian and regional allies. Russia is pinched between an unreliable ally in the Assad regime, which, for all its brutality, is incapable of winning the war; an all too capable ally in Iran, able to defend its interests in Syria even when they diverge from Moscow’s; an adversary in Turkey which, nominal rapprochement notwithstanding, has little incentive at present to do Moscow favours; a formidable military power across the occupied Golan in Israel, which is sceptical of Russia’s intentions and ability to rein in Hizbollah and acts against it even in proximity to Russian forces; and an unpredictable rival in the Trump administration, which, for all its professed desire to avoid foreign entanglements, may find stoking crisis to its political benefit. Russia for the most part has successfully balanced among these competing forces, but it cannot do so forever. The chemical weapon attack and U.S. response are examples of destabilising events that are bound to increase and at some point slip out of Moscow’s control.
Ultimately, U.S. and Russian realism will be needed to seriously begin a process that could lead to an end of the conflict. What happened in Khan Sheikhoun points to the horrors ahead and of their dangerous regional and perhaps even wider international ramifications if the situation is left adrift. Whether the U.S. attack on 7 April was prudent or reckless is beside the point: what matters now is to turn it into an opportunity to initiate steps that reduce the violence in Syria, so that the unspeakable civilian suffering eases and a political process finally has a chance.