MOSCOW — The US-Russia standoff over Syria that held the world in suspense for more than a week appears to have ended with a series of strikes Saturday by the United States, UK and France. The strikes targeted facilities associated with Syria's presumed chemical weapons capabilities and, according to the Pentagon, will set back the Syrian chemical weapons program “for years.”
In Moscow, the attacks were met with what could be considered “mild outrage." The Kremlin issued a statement calling the strike “an act of aggression against a sovereign state that is on the frontline in the fight against terrorism.” It said, “The current escalation around Syria is destructive for the entire system of international relations.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry used stronger language, saying the airstrike was “designed to intimidate and was taken under an absolutely contrived pretext.” The attack, it said, signaled that the United States and its allies “want to give radicals and extremists a chance to catch their breath and restore their ranks in order to prolong bloodshed on the Syrian territory and thus hinder political settlement.”
Late that day, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to discuss the strikes. Turkey’s public statement, released shortly after the attacks, welcomed the US-led operation, calling it “an appropriate response to the chemical attack which caused the deaths of many civilians in Douma.” According to the Kremlin, Putin and Erdogan agreed in their phone conversation that “cooperation aimed at the actual advancement of a political settlement in Syria must be ramped up.”
The next day, according to the Kremlin, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran called Putin to express solidarity in assessing the strikes as “illegitimate action [that] has seriously damaged the prospects for a political settlement in Syria.” The Russian president stressed, "If such actions continue in violation of the UN Charter, this will inevitably lead to chaos in international relations.”
These conversations indicate that Turkey, a NATO ally of the Western countries, is the weakest link in the peace-process chain and the recurring negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan, at least when it comes to forging an objective position on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The next day, Russia called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting to present its draft resolution, which would have condemned “the aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic by the US and its allies in violation of international law and the UN Charter.” The resolution failed.
While some outside observers were content because the strikes didn’t ultimately trigger a major military conflict between the two largest nuclear superpowers, others were disappointed because they had expected stronger action by both Russia and the United States. The disappointment was rooted in the red lines the Defense Ministry set for itself in March. “In case lives of Russian servicemen [stationed in Syria] are threatened, the Russian military will take retaliatory measures on both the missiles and launchers used,” the chief of Russia's general staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, said back then.
For Moscow, the conflict over Syria has been less about Syria itself and more about the makings of a new world order, setting rules and changing what Moscow has seen as detrimental US policies. For Washington, at least as seen by Russia, it was important to demonstrate that its superiority remains unrivaled. Therefore, it's critical to demonstrate attributes of such superiority, including the use of force, when it comes to curbing Russia’s attempts to push its own agenda. The argument that the use of force on Syria was triggered exclusively by Assad’s chemical weapons attack falls on deaf ears in Moscow. Nothing changes Russia’s belief that the alleged attacks were “deliberately and cynically staged.”
Russia's decision not to strike back was influenced by US President Donald Trump’s clear lack of interest in a hardcore military confrontation. Russia presumed the United States wasn't seeking a dramatic change in the state of affairs on the ground. Hence the view in Moscow is that both Russia and the United States are interested in de-escalation.
Despite the rhetoric, Russia lags behind the United States in conventional arms, and probably in conventional warfare. Yet the United States can't think of Russia only in these terms, given the other means Moscow has at its disposal — and its potential willingness to use them if it's backed into a corner and feels strategic desperation. Even without resorting to direct confrontation using nonconventional weapons, Russia can turn to cyberwarfare to jam US drones, throw cruise missiles off course and accomplish any number of disabling attacks.
Days before the Syria attack, Russia conveyed — through information campaigns, military posturing and back-channel communications — its very real intentions to deal with the situation in different scenarios, depending on what action the United States would take. The idea to move troops and ammunition from areas of potential US strikes was part of this intent on the Russian side. So was the decision to put the entire Russian military, including forces based in Syria, on high operational alert, but to make sure it didn't respond to US strikes.
The approaches taken by both parties were, arguably, the most acceptable of all possible options. The strikes helped Russia and the United States save face, and Moscow saw them as a reasonable compromise by the Trump administration.
The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that Syrian air defense systems — “thanks to the excellent training by Russian specialists” — intercepted 71 out of a total 103 cruise missiles launched. The Pentagon provided a different account, saying, "None of our aircraft or missiles involved in this operation were successfully engaged by Syrian air defenses." Since it appears no Russian servicemen were hit by the strikes, Moscow didn't have to deliver on its red-line statements. Russia's most significant response, however, will be to supply Syria with S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile systems.
Although the American and Russian militaries probably have a lot to study now, their divergent narratives are largely meant to serve both stated and hidden political purposes. What matters more from a political perspective is, the incident showed that the parties are still able to maintain a sense of self-preservation when driven to the edge of a direct military clash.
Each party credits itself for de-escalation. Moscow believes this was in large part made possible due to its own posture. The United States and allies, for their part, launched a much smaller attack than they could have. They most likely gave the Russians enough of a heads-up so Moscow could ensure that everything and everyone that needed to be saved from the attacks were evacuated and relocated. As paradoxical as it may sound, both sides did their part to "de-escalate" and minimize repercussions.
And each claims to have come out on top. So now that Moscow and Washington are seemingly content with how it all went, the task is to ensure that each side's victory dance doesn't polarize the situation and result in a new escalation.
As paradoxical as it may sound, both sides did their part to "de-escalate" and minimize repercussions.
The result of the strikes might be "Mission Accomplished," as Trump proclaimed. But the strikes in no way settle most of the burning issues on the US-Russia bilateral agenda in Syria. Many in Moscow believe Western allies have not ruled out further attacks, despite claims to the contrary. That belief is based on Russia's claim that since the Douma chemical attacks were staged, not real, it wouldn't take long for another make-believe provocation to arise if there’s a political need. What may make the situation different is that each strike is likely to be bigger in scope and harder to de-escalate by the same playbook. Besides, the United States and allied Kurdish forces still control large parts of the territory and show no signs of yielding ground. This means risks remain for a direct military clash between Russia and the United States.
On a positive note, embraced by some Russian experts and decision-makers, this state of affairs may actually open new opportunities for a detente on Syria. Moscow believes the United States took action in part to get back in the game of a political settlement in Syria on its own terms. The initiative seemed to have been snatched by the Astana trio of Russia, Turkey and Iran. Trump doesn’t seek a long-term presence in the country, but can't afford leaving it as is. The United States seeks to employ diplomatic tools now that its position supposedly looks stronger. Despite the harsh rhetoric, Moscow doesn’t shy away from such discussions, though few believe they would produce anything substantial.
Commenting on the new UN Security Council draft resolution submitted by the United States, the UK and France, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow “will critically study” the document.
“It will be hard to reach a reasonable compromise on this issue. We have well-known red lines. Probably the Western group also has its own irrevocable red lines. [Yet] we are not excluding anything beforehand. If there are some reasonable elements, we’ll be working on them,” he concluded.
"Sooner or later our American colleagues will have to make agreements with us," said Vladimir Ermakov, the director of the Nonproliferation and Arms Control Department at the Russian Foreign Ministry. "It would be more useful for them to do it sooner rather than later, since the military-technical weight of the US in the global distribution of forces is on a steady decrease.”
It may take a few other crises for Moscow and Washington to get on the path to a more constructive engagement. For now, however, the United States is having second thoughts about its previously announced decision to impose new economic sanctions on Russia over its support for Assad.