Snapshot Analysis: Was Chemical Attack in Syria Meant to Drive Wedge Between US and Russia?
U.S. retaliation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons has sharply escalated tensions between Moscow and Washington, reducing hopes of a rapprochement between the two powers. That might be exactly what Assad wants, but presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin do not have to fall in his trap. The U.S. and Russia should work together to investigate the use of chemical weapons and to ensure continued deconfliction between their militaries in the short term, while also pushing parties to the conflict to reach a peace deal in the long term.
By ordering a strike on the Syrian government forces’ Shayrat airfield in response to their alleged use of chemical weapons Trump moved to enforce a redline that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had drawn—but then effectively erased—for Assad back in 2013. Of course, the current situation is quite different than in 2013. Assad is no longer on the verge of being overrun by his enemies, as he was four years ago, and therefore there is no risk that a U.S. air campaign would unintentionally facilitate the rise of the Islamic State and/or al-Qaeda to power in Damascus.
Nevertheless, the firing of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the USS Ross and the USS Porter in the Mediterranean Sea was not without risks, including a risk of unintended military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia.
Yes, the Pentagon insists it had repeatedly warned the Russian military of the pending strikes through the existing deconfliction channel so Russian personnel could be evacuated from Shayrat, but according to the chairman of the Russian State Duma’s Defense Committee, Vladimir Shamanov, these warnings came only two hours before the attacks. What if not all Russian personnel got the word? Recall how the U.S. government tried to ensure that its own planes didn’t fly armed with nuclear missiles during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but its message failed to reach all personnel and such sorties continued. “There is always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word,” President John Kennedy exclaimed at that time when he put the odds of a nuclear war “between one out of three and even.” More important, what if no one on the Russian side got the word? After all, the deconfliction channel is, in the words of a Pentagon official, “little more than a commercial phone line” between a U.S. facility in Qatar and a Russian facility in Syria, which could have easily been disrupted just when it was needed the most. One also could not rule out the possibility that one of the Tomahawks could have strayed and hit a Russian asset, especially if it is true, as the Russian Defense Ministry claims, that only 23 of the 59 missiles actually reached Shayrat.
The probability that any of the aforementioned scenarios would have materialized is low and even if one of them did materialize, it would not have necessarily escalated tensions between the U.S. and Russia into a war. However, one should bear in mind that risk equals probability multiplied by consequences: While the probability of an escalation to war is low, the consequences of a conflict between two nuclear powers that can erase humanity from the face of Earth are significant.
Prior to the strikes, there was a decent chance that meetings between the U.S. and Russia would have produced some bilateral consensus on Syria’s future that Assad would have found less favorable than Moscow’s unconditional support for his regime.
The probability of unintended escalation has increased in the wake of the cruise missile attacks in any case, if only because Moscow responded to them by pulling out of the 2015 U.S.-Russian agreement establishing the aforementioned deconfliction communications channel to avoid accidents between the two countries’ warplanes over Syria. That’s an unfortunate development and the sides should engage in a dialogue on how to continue using the line, which has helped to avert a number of dangerous incidents between Western and Russian militaries in Syria. Moreover, they should think of ways to upgrade and expand Western-Russian military-to-military communications, given that even the existence of such channels has not prevented incidents altogether. Examples include the shooting down of a Russian Su-24 warplane by a Turkish fighter in 2015 and the Russian bombing of a base used by U.S. special forces in 2016.
Fortunately there are signs that Russia does not view the firing of the Tomahawks as a train-wreck for the bilateral relationship: The chief of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, spoke to his U.S. counterpart, Joseph Dunford, after the attack, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed hope that the missile attack has not done irreparable damage to U.S.-Russian ties and the Russian parliament has signaled that Rex Tillerson is still welcome to visit Moscow next week.
In addition to discussing further deconfliction in Syria, the U.S. and Russia, along with other members of the United Nations Security Council, should launch an investigation to identify and punish the culprits behind the use of chemical weapons. Most of the evidence presented so far points to Assad’s camp, though some of his opponents, including the Islamic State, have also used chemical weapons in the past.
If Assad did order the use of chemical weapons, then, as some Western experts have suggested, one reason for doing so could have been to intimidate his foes. But if the history of the Syrian conflict is any guide, such intimidation tactics will not yield strategic benefits, such as major territorial gains. In contrast, some in Moscow wonder whether rogue elements in the Syrian regime could have engineered the attack. In my view, if Assad or anyone in his retinue was indeed behind the use of chemical weapons, then one strategic reason for doing so could have been to try to provoke a forceful response from the West in order to keep the gap between the U.S. and Russia on Syria as wide as possible. Prior to the strikes, there was a decent chance that the meetings between Tillerson and Lavrov on April 12 and the subsequent Trump-Putin summit would have produced some bilateral consensus on Syria’s future that Assad would have found less favorable than Moscow’s unconditional support for his regime. The U.S. strikes—triggered by a chemical-weapon attack that Trump blames on Assad—has considerably lowered the likelihood of such a consensus, while also increasing tensions between the U.S. and Russia.
But U.S. and Russian leaders do not have to fall for Assad’s ploy. They should work together not only to rigorously investigate the recent use of chemical weapons, but also to think of appropriate, coordinated responses to any future use, as well as how to deter such use. More important, Moscow and Washington should be working to put an end to the ongoing slaughter of civilians by all parties to the conflict, regardless of what weapons are used to kill the innocent.
Notwithstanding their differences, the U.S. and Russia share a long-term interest in preventing Syria from either becoming a terrorist state or falling apart. Given this convergence of their interests, both Washington and Moscow should work to put pressure on the moderate opposition and Assad to negotiate the transition to a coalition government, which could then take on ISIS and al-Qaeda while also ensuring Assad’s departure from power.
Only a concert of nations led by Washington and Moscow can make Syria, where half a million have already died, whole and at peace with itself.
Simon Saradzhyan is the director of Russia Matters and assistant director of the Belfer Center's U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism.
Photo by the U.S. Navy shared as a U.S. government work in the public domain.