Maxim A. Suchkov, PhD, Editor of Al-Monitor’s Russia-Mideast coverage.
The American military strike on a Syrian airbase has rather demonstrated President Trump’s burning desire to adopt a more hawkish stance – both at home and abroad – than has been launched merely in retaliation for the terrible chemical attack. At home, it was a gimmick to consolidate his position in Congress, secure bipartisan support (primarily GOP’s approval), cement his voting base, and shed the image of the Kremlin’s lackey, which has increasingly been weakening his presidential mandate and left little room for political maneuver. Moreover, this step was due to receive the approbation of the major “domestic sponsors”, including the military-industrial complex, the oil industry, and financiers. Finally, it can be treated as the comeback of the “strong leader”, the translation of Trump’s election pledge into a policy.
To others, the air strikes have put across a strong message about the return of “the old sheriff to town”, which has drawn mixed reaction from global players. Israel voiced its approval, Gulf monarchies appeared content, Iran was troubled, North Korea felt wary, and Russia seemed anxious. The “intimidation” hypothesis can further be supported by the timing of the attack. The US bombed the Syrian airbase during the Chinese leader’s visit to the US.
The use of the Tomahawk cruise missiles reveals, at least, three things about Trump’s response to the first serious international crisis of his term. First, he is apparently more willing to use military force than his predecessor. Second, it does not take him long to move from words to deeds and, unlike Obama, he reaches and returns a “verdict” with 24 hours – “Assad is to blame!”- and carries out the sentence. Third, just like his predecessors, he does not seek Congress’ authorization of the military operation. Nor does he try to get the UN Security Council mandate. He does not even deem it necessary to form the “coalition of the willing”, which shows that he prefers self-reliance.
If we assume that he was pressured into giving the go-ahead by political forces or the public, it could point to Trump’s strong dependence on those he wanted to oppose, the establishment. This makes America’s anti-terrorist cooperation with Russia less likely, if not impossible.
Such a rash decision to opt for the use of force downplayed Russia’s proposal to launch an independent international investigation into the chemical attack in Syria. Whatever the Western media claimed, Russia promoted this very initiative rather than “the defense of Assad”. Yet America’s swift military offensive, intentionally or not, limits the scope for Russia’s diplomatic maneuvers, thus forcing Moscow into retaliating. Shortly after the Syrian incident, Russia suspended a memorandum preventing mid-air collisions in order to hypothetically challenge America’s airborne missions. In addition, Russia sent the “Admiral Grigorovich” frigate to the Mediterranean, a symbolic gesture of support for the Syrian leadership. In the mid-term perspective, Russia’s Defense Ministry is going to try to strengthen Syria’s air defense and is likely to carry out more combat flights. One should not count on a more resolute response, at least for the time being.
For all the predictably tough rhetoric from Russia, President Putin has yet to comment on the situation. If the military strike on Syria turns out to be merely a necessary one-off response to what Washington perceives as “Assad’s crime” and is not followed by a more “hawkish” foreign policy towards Syria, the situation in the Arab Republic is unlikely to change. Actually, everything so far testifies to the scenario. However, America’s “message” per se will be heard by Moscow, the region, and the world.
Another trouble is that the crisis additionally empowers Syria’s “losing party”, a wide range of stakeholders both in the US and the Middle East, including ISIS (terrorist group, forbidden in Russia). As those willing to see the US-Russia conflict degenerate into direct confrontation are a dime a dozen, the sides should proceed with caution, both verbally and nonverbally.