“Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’,” US President Donald Trump tweeted on Wednesday, referring to the missiles he plans to launch at Syrian regime targets following Saturday’s chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Douma. Given Russia’s warnings that it would retaliate against any US strikes on Syria, launching missiles is Trump’s least risky military option.
The killing of American military personnel, whether on the ground or in the air, would raise the specter of US retaliation against Russian forces and a subsequent escalation between the two global powers. Intercepting missiles and targeting their launchers, as Moscow has threatened to do, is relatively less risky because it would not entail loss of life.
Trump’s chosen course of action will not lead to a Third World War, as is the usual knee-jerk hysteria when the US threatens or carries out military action in Syria. Its involvement so far has not led to such an outcome, so there is little reason to expect a different result now, not least because both Washington and Moscow have said they do not seek direct conflict.
Both have increased their involvement in Syria, but they have made sure to avoid each other’s forces, and targeting Russian military bases and forces in the country is not an option being entertained.
It is not even certain that Moscow will carry out its threat. It faces a quandary: Lose face if it does nothing, or risk embarrassment if it tries and fails to intercept enough missiles. Similarly, the US faces the risk of embarrassment if a large proportion of its missiles are downed.
Moscow making good on its threat represents a direct showdown between advanced Russian and American military hardware, and governments and armies worldwide will be watching to see which comes out on top. The war of words has lessened the likelihood of a climbdown by either side.
The missile strikes are likely to be more wide-ranging than those following the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun a year ago, but that does not necessarily mean they will be more effective. In anticipation of an attack, the regime has reportedly repositioned some air assets, flown planes to three Russian air bases (which the US will not target), and emptied military bases. Senior regime officials have also been moved to safe houses.
Besides, Russia’s air force would be willing and able to take up the slack in case of the further degradation of the regime’s air power, safe in the knowledge that it will remain unchallenged. The former has been doing much, if not most, of the heavy lifting in terms of the aerial bombardment of rebel positions and civilian infrastructure anyway.
That the forewarning of military action has enabled the regime to exercise damage limitation might not be unintended. A man of image rather than substance, Trump could bask in the optics of missile strikes while minimizing the chances or extent of Russian intervention if the regime is not significantly threatened.
Like the missile strikes on the air base from which regime warplanes carried out the Khan Sheikhoun bombing raids, the upcoming strikes might be equally symbolic. They may be on a larger scale, but they will not change the balance of power or hinder the regime’s ability to kill, displace and terrorize its own people, whether with chemical or conventional weaponry.
Now that Trump has spelled out his course of military action, speculation is focused on which countries will join the US. The most likely partner is France, whose President Emmanuel Macron has set a “red line” regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria. “When you fix red lines, if you don’t know how to make sure they are respected, you’re choosing to be weak. That’s not my choice,” he said, in a clear effort to quash comparisons with the red line set and ignored by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama.
But it is far from certain that the US and France will be joined by other allies. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has expressed a willingness to partake in military action, but MPs — including opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn — have cautioned her against acting without a parliamentary vote. Her predecessor David Cameron had a much larger parliamentary majority than May does, but still lost such a vote in 2013. She may decide that launching, or even seeking, military action is a headache that her already battered administration could do without.
Turkey, with which the US has increasingly strained ties, has stayed mum, keen not to jeopardize its burgeoning relations with Russia and their cooperation regarding Syria.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has raised the possibility of Saudi involvement “if our alliance with our partners requires it.” But no doubt Riyadh will be weighing the potential effects on its improving ties with Moscow, including their coordination with regard to stabilizing global oil prices.
Israel has urged military action, but it is unlikely to take part, with its previous strikes limited to checking the strength of Hezbollah and Iran in Syria, particularly near their shared border, rather than out of concern for Syrian civilians. Tel Aviv also has to contend with the effects of military action on its close relations with Moscow, which accused Israel of striking a regime air base on Monday.
On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do nothing to destabilize Syria. If Netanyahu were to partake in the upcoming US strikes, Putin would take this as direct defiance, and there would likely be consequences. Netanyahu would only be willing to face them to safeguard Israeli interests. Indeed, he told Putin that Israel will carry out a campaign to prevent Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria, which has nothing to do with the regime gassing its own people.
None of this will deter Trump, who prides himself on his unilateralism and acted alone in striking the Khan Sheikhoun air base. And he will still enjoy the diplomatic backing of US allies, if not their military involvement. Besides, a coalition is hardly necessary given the likely scope and aim of the attack he intends to launch.
- Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs. Twitter: @sharifnash