After the US air strikes on the Shayrat Airbase in Syria earlier this month, the US administration has been threatening further strikes, saying that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has lost all legitimacy and must be removed.
The US has also accused Russia of being aware of the Syrian regime’s intention to use chemical weapons before the bombs were dropped on the town of Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April. There has been an atmosphere of war rather than a climate propitious to a political solution, but two weeks after the US strikes there has been no escalation.
White House Spokesman Sean Spicer said US President Donald Trump was willing to order more strikes against Syria if the regime used further chemical weapons or barrel bombs. This was a red line that the regime did not expect as it has been using barrel bombs for years without US retaliation.
“If you gas an infant or drop an explosive barrel on innocent people, the president will respond,” Spicer said in a threat directed at Al-Assad.
The Trump administration’s willingness to stop the Al-Assad regime from using barrel bombs and chemical weapons will undoubtedly protect the lives of many Syrians and paralyse the regime’s air force. However, it will not guarantee the beginning of a political solution as the Syrian conflict enters its seventh year.
The bombing of the Shayrat Airbase ushered in a new phase in the Syrian crisis, essentially marking the end of Russia’s single mandate in Syria. Despite debate about the limited impact of the strikes, Washington has been able to re-impose itself as a player that cannot be ignored in Syria.
However, the US bombing of a military base used to bomb at least three Syrian provinces was not the result of Trump wanting to help the Syrian people overthrow the regime. It was not the result of a humanitarian awakening after watching thousands of children die either, this taking place with the full knowledge of the Russians and the participation of mercenaries from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan loyal to Iran.
It is more likely that the strikes were founded in US domestic calculations after the mounting pressure on Trump about possible links with Russia during last year’s US presidential elections and were meant to curb the extensive Iranian meddling in the region.
Trump and his senior aides have often said they are focussed on the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) group and not on removing the Syrian regime. It is likely that Russian obstructionism in the UN Security Council played a role in the decision to bomb the airbase, especially since the US role in the Middle East weakened during former president Barack Obama’s tenure.
The incumbent administration’s policies are unlike those of its predecessor, and it is hard to predict what Trump intends. However, Russia has started to understand that it does not have a monopoly on the Syrian crisis and it cannot allocate roles to local, regional and international players just as it pleases.
The US air strikes also ended a long honeymoon between the Russian leadership and the new US administration. But the Russians did not cancel a visit by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Moscow on 11 and 12 April, and Moscow said it would discuss the Syrian issue when he visited.
Over the past 18 months and since its direct military intervention in Syria began in September 2016, Russia has claimed it has intervened militarily to push the peace process forward, adjust the military reality on the ground, and maintain the balance of power so a political solution can be pursued at the Geneva and Astana Conferences.
However, in reality Russia has shored up its position and strengthened the Syrian regime at the expense of the political and military opposition. It has directly targeted the latter under the pretext of fighting terrorism, using a Chechen model of destruction and displacement.
After the bombing of the Shayrat Airbase, the Kremlin has two options. It could step up coordination with the Americans to promote a political solution based on the Geneva I Conference – a solution proposing a transitional ruling body with a full mandate.
Alternatively, it could increase its military presence in Syria, which is something it probably cannot do because of its own economic difficulties and concerns over possible losses. This option looks certain to drag Russia into another Afghan quagmire.
It does not seem, however, that the US is any hurry to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis. It is primarily concerned with curbing Iran’s influence, whether in Syria or the region as a whole, and while this could serve the interests of Russia and the Syrian regime, it puts Russia in a dilemma because it will now be forced to join a partnership with the US.
Abdel-Rehim Mattar, a member of the Syrian opposition, believes the Trump administration has no intention of managing the Syrian conflict. “What is happening in the media is different from the decisions made behind closed doors,” Mattar said. “Volatility is a feature of Trump’s tenure. Russia was able to restore operations at the Airbase after just one day, and days later chemical weapons were again used against civilians.”
“Obama said that Al-Assad’s continuation in power was illegitimate, but he opted to boost security cooperation instead of taking radical measures to remove obstacles on the path to a political solution in Syria. This caused the Europeans not to take action against the crimes committed by the regime and its allies. Trump is reviving this spirit. It could indicate the birth of a new coalition against the Syrian regime, or just a repetition of the president’s position of appeasement.”
In the bickering between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin over Syria, there have been no indications that Washington will force Moscow to comply with a political solution. The relationship between the two is complex, Iran plays a prominent role on the scene, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel have influence that also must be taken into consideration.
The US wants to get rid of Iran, eliminate the threat of IS, and then turn to the Syrian conflict. Its policies do not take into account the desires of the Syrian players, since these have little influence over what happens and must simply tailor their behaviour to international political messages.
Al-Assad loyalists will not attempt to hasten his departure to protect the state or go into partnership with the opposition to combat terrorism. The opposition is not able to close ranks in an institutional structure that can bring everyone together irrespective of ideology.
Trump brings to mind the policies of US hawks who lean towards force and a shrill political tone. This could lead to changes in Putin’s policies on Syria and may force him to de-escalate the Russian intervention with the US ready to protect his gains if it indeed decides to pursue a political solution and replace the incumbent Syrian regime.