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US–Russia relations and the Syria missile attack: moving beyond ‘red lines’

Posted By on April 27, 2017 @ 13:00

Image courtesy of Pixabay usuer markusspiske.

The American missiles strike [1] against regime targets in Syria represent a dramatic reversal of US policy. Just days before the 7 April attack, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the US priority for Syria would no longer be regime change: ‘Our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out’, she told reporters [2].

Then, in a drastic—but perhaps unsurprising [3]—U-turn, Donald Trump ordered a military strike on the Shayrat airbase in western Syria from which, the US said, a deadly chemical weapons strike against Syrian civilians was launched days earlier [4]. This is the first time the US has directly targeted the Syrian regime since the start of the six year civil war, marking a key change to American policies towards the region.

The Trump administration framed the attack as a ‘proportional response’ to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people, while world leaders—including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull [5]— quickly voiced their support for the ‘swift and justifiable’ action.

Regardless of how you interpret the situation, the aftermath of the strikes should provide an opportunity to restart diplomatic efforts between the US and Russia (and by extension Assad). The US needs small, diplomatic measures that seek strategic, targeted relief for civilian populations, while reducing hostilities and violence between the Assad regime and Syrian opposition forces. The issue of jihadi groups influencing non-jihadi counterparts is an area of mutual concern that could be strategically leveraged to bring the US and Russia back to the negotiating table.

As Syria’s key ally in the Middle East, Moscow’s response to the strike was swift and pointed. It signaled its intent to stop participating on in the US–Russia de-confliction channel [6] designed to avoid accidental clashes between patrolling aircraft, (although it later backed away [7] from this threat). Russia also deployed a frigate [8] carrying Kalibr cruise missiles to the East Mediterranean. With both sides having played their hands, the time is ripe to reduce bilateral tensions and increase diplomatic efforts.

That the strikes have increased tensions between Washington and Moscow shouldn’t be wholly negative. Indeed, the potential risks attached to a more volatile relationship may prompt both sides to more seriously consider cooperating on their supposed ‘mutual interests’—reducing violence in Syria to establish some kind of meaningful political process.

Following Assad’s use of chemical weapons, it would be tempting for both sides to move backwards and perhaps restore the pre-2013 status quo concerning non-use of chemical weapons. But that should be avoided. Instead, the US and Russia should commit to joint steps to avoid direct confrontation with  each other, while working towards reducing violence between pro-government forces and Syrian opposition forces. Washington and Moscow have both long-identified jihadist groups as a threat of  mutual interest [9]. Not only would such actions provide greater resources for the fight against Islamic State and Tahrir al-Sham (formerly al Nusra [10])—both of which seek to radicalise the non-jihadist opposition forces fighting against Assad—but that would also provide much-needed time to put together a more credible political process. If US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson [11] was right when he said, prior to the missile strike, that the future of the Assad regime ‘will be decided by the Syrian people’, then they must first ensure that there’s a proper process through which Syrians can express their will.

To kick things off, the US and Russia should work together—using elements of various ceasefires attempted in 2016 [12] and 2017 [13]—to define the terms of a new agreement between the government and the Syrian opposition groups. To succeed where others have failed, however, these new negotiations must include all countries involved in the conflict to leverage their influence over the various groups [14] fighting each other (Turkey and the Free Syrian Army for example, or Iran and its Hezbollah militias).

Moreover, the US, Russia and their respective regional partners must seriously consider the influence of groups like Tahrir al-Sham, which currently dominates much of the rebel-held territory in north-west Syria and controls territory close to Syrian opposition forces. By ignoring the challenges presented by that group, the US and Russia risk allowing them to radicalise the more moderate opposition. Tahrir al-Sham’s exclusion from ceasefire negotiations so far has emboldened them even further and provided the Assad government with a loophole through which his regime has continued to target opposition-held areas. Including Tahrir al-Sham in ceasefire discussions would allow the US and Turkey some much needed time and leverage to work with partner rebel groups on the ground, providing greater resources to ensure they are not being swayed by more radical forces. If they don’t address the challenges presented by Tahrir al-Sham—specifically its ability to radicalise the moderate opposition—they risk having to work with a more extreme opposition in the future. That mutual concern could be what brings both the US and Russia to the negotiating table, despite vast differences in opinion on what kind of political process should be established in Syria.

Whatever the risks and merits of the 7 April missile attack, what matters now is the ability of the US and Russia to turn the current situation into an opportunity for cooperation on areas of mutual immediate interest: reducing violence between government and opposition forces to ease civilian suffering and initiate a more credible political process.



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URLs in this post:

[1] missiles strike: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/trump-weighing-military-options-following-chemical-weapons-attack-in-syria/2017/04/06/0c59603a-1ae8-11e7-9887-1a5314b56a08_story.html?utm_term=.d25b0d93162f

[2] she told reporters: http://edition.cnn.com/2017/03/30/politics/tillerson-haley-syria-assad-turkey/index.html

[3] perhaps unsurprising: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-37982000

[4] days earlier: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/07/did-donald-trump-strike-al-shayrat-air-base/

[5] Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull: http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/04/07/turnbull-praises-swift-and-just-us-missile-strikes-in-syria_a_22031006/

[6] US–Russia de-confliction channel: http://thehill.com/policy/defense/327751-russia-suspends-communication-line-with-us-meant-to-avoid-collisions-in-syria

[7] later backed away: http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/04/07/syria-strike-prompts-russia-to-shut-down-communication-channel-with-us.html

[8] deployed a frigate: https://news.usni.org/2017/04/07/russia-sends-frigate-mediterranean-following-u-s-retaliation-strike-u-s-destroyers-remain-station

[9] mutual interest: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/30/russia-and-us-planning-military-coordination-against-isis-in-syria

[10] formerly al Nusra: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-36924000

[11] Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2017/03/269318.htm

[12] 2016: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/02/syria-war-ceasefire-160228063752872.html

[13] 2017: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/02/russia-turkey-iran-syria-ceasefire-astana-170206080423207.html

[14] various groups: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/25/middleeast/syria-isis-whos-fighting-who-trnd/

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