The recent US missile strikes against the Shayrat Airbase in Syria did not only convoy a message to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad but also warned all those supporting extremist groups in the region.
US President Donald Trump claimed that his goal in ordering the missile strikes was to punish Al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in early April.
In reaction, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani asked for an international investigation in order to make clear who had used the chemical weapons as Russia denied that its Syrian protégé had in fact used the weapons. A meeting of the UN Security Council on 7 April then failed to agree on a resolution or any new solution to deal with the Syrian crisis.
Russia disagreed with the proposed UN Security Council Resolution saying that the UN should investigate the chemical weapons attacks and vetoed the draft Resolution. It claimed that the real reason behind the resolution was the desire of the US and its allies to inspect the Shayrat Airbase.
Russia’s objection to the resolution indicates the importance of Syria’s military and security infrastructure for Moscow, while Iran did not disagree with the idea of an international investigation and even the inspection of Syrian bases when the Russians were present.
The differences indicate the different goals of the stakeholders in the Syrian conflict, including the differences between Russia and Iran. Iran fears that Russia may still make a deal with the US over the fate of Al-Assad if the US guarantees that the military and security situation in Syria will not change even with the departure of the president.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Russia last week and met with his counterpart Sergey Lavrov, though the details of the discussions were not made public. Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif and his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem also met in Moscow last Friday, condemning the US strikes on Syria and warning that they would “respond with force” in the event of further US attacks.
Decrying the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stressed the need for accountability for such crimes in line with existing international norms and Security Council Resolutions. In the wake of the US airstrikes, Guterres said that “mindful of the risk of escalation, I appeal for restraint to avoid any acts that could deepen the suffering of the Syrian people.”
Recent weeks have seen the stakeholders in the Syrian crisis reshaping their strategies, with Iran heading into a presidential elections campaign and Turkey wrapping up a constitutional referendum. The fate of the current ceasefire that has saved thousands of lives is in the balance, and if it is broken the escalation of the conflict in Syria will likely be worse than ever.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the United Nations and its new secretary-general is now to hold the shaky ceasefire together after the missile strikes that brought Russia and the US close to confrontation. The peace talks between the Syrian opposition and the regime in Geneva and Astana will be useless if the parties decline to continue the talks and the ceasefire is broken.
There is also the danger that the Syrian crisis will further escalate if the United Nations fails to play a central role in ending it.
While the world was absorbing the news of the US strikes on Syria, last Thursday the US dropped a GBU-43B bomb, the so-called “mother of all bombs,” on Afghanistan aiming to hit Islamic State (IS) group cells in mountain caves in the Achin district of the Nangehar province.
The US acted with the permission and collaboration of the Afghan government, but the use of this enormous weapon, killing some 100 people in the blast, indicated that the Trump administration is ready to use greater force than the previous Obama administration.
The bombing sent out the message that the US administration will not hesitate to use such force even in the circumstances of the present polarisation.
Thus far, Russia and Iran have not reacted publicly to the US use of the bomb in Afghanistan, but the message will have been loud and clear. Iran’s political leadership, particularly Rouhani, is busy with his re-election campaign, but observers expect Rouhani to pursue a more robust foreign policy should he be re-elected in May.
For the moment, it seems that the regional players are holding back, leaving the ground open for the US and Russia to design the rules for how they want to play.