U.S. forces carried out a cruise missile strike on an air base of Assad forces in Syria in response to an earlier chemical attack of the Syrian government in Idlib province, which killed civilians, including children. U.S. President Donald Trump has confirmed that he personally ordered the targeted strike.
This step makes it apparent that the 45th U.S. President is trying to show a stance radically different from that of his predecessor, Barack Obama. At the beginning of the crisis, he continuously blamed the former administration with bringing the situation in Syria to a deadlock, and therefore its complexity makes it extremely difficult for him to take any decision. Trump greenlighted a strike, first of all, to prepare ground for being perceived differently from his predecessor, and, second, to demonstrate the intentions of the new American administration, without creating further escalation in Syria.
Putin’s initial statement in response to U.S. attack on the Syrian air base (claiming it was a violation of sovereignty and interference in internal affairs, an act of aggression, etc.) indicate that Russia will continue to pursue its line
I doubt that any larger-scale military operations are possible in the near future. But even this missile strike alone is a very serious demonstration of U.S. intentions. It was determined to demonstrate America’s readiness to go further in case Bashar Assad and his allies refuse further negotiations and take unconstructive position in the UN Security Council (I believe the UN Security Council will continue to be used as one of foreign political instruments). And here comes the next important question – will this strike prevent Russia from vetoing the resolution? Putin’s initial statement in response to U.S. attack on the Syrian air base (claiming it was a violation of sovereignty and interference in internal affairs, an act of aggression, etc.) indicate that Russia will continue to pursue its line. In this case, the U.S. strikes may continue until the free fly zone is created in Syria (but it is a scenario that can either unfold or not depending on the actions of other players in the region).
The most important point in this situation is that the U.S. is returning to the Middle East. Over the last year, America kept itself aloof from Middle Eastern issues, which helped transform the region into an arena, where only Russia and Iran were “in charge.” As a result of Obama’s idleness, Iran has strengthened its positions in the region significantly.
In general, it seems that Russia will be going through some hard times
However, the return of America raises the question of collision with Iran that will happen sooner or later, because Iran has increased its presence in Syria particularly. Actually, the Assad regime is being maintained largely due to Iran’s support. And also thanks to Russia.
Putin has called these attacks "aggression under a false pretext." This is the traditional Russian rhetoric. After all, the Russians cannot accept the fact that Assad used chemical weapons, while they did nothing to stop him, because this would mean that Russia failed to fulfill the agreement, reached with the U.S. This is something Russia just can’t recognize, and that is why Putin talks about a "false pretext."
But can Moscow use military resources in this situation? It can’t. Political? Also, not. In this case, it would be very difficult for Putin to save face. Moscow has invested too much in the Syrian conflict and presented it as its grand return to the Middle East... But a surprise U.S. attack has made their "grand return" turn into a pumpkin like a Cinderella’s coach. In general, it seems that Russia will be going through some hard times. The thing is that Trump was very quick in taking a decision on carrying out a missile strike. When decision-making is slow, there are always ways to counteract, prepare a compromise, and lead a backstage dialogue. But when decisions are made quickly, there is no time for "diplomatic" measures. Everything is decided by who is acting stronger and more aggressively. And it’s clearly not Putin this time.
Ihor Semyvolos is a director at Middle East Studies Center