On April 7, less than 72 hours after the devastating chemical weapons attack against Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria, President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. military to launch approximately 60 cruise missiles against the Shayrat Air Base in retaliation.
It is too early to know whether the strike—the first deliberate military action by the United States against the Assad regime—constituted a one-off episode or the beginning of a longer air campaign. While the military impact is minimal, the psychological impact on the paranoid and insular Assad regime could be more significant as regime insiders contemplate Assad’s miscalculation, the possibility of new understandings between Washington and Moscow, and the prospect of more attacks.
What is clear is that a dramatic wild card has been inserted into the Syrian conflict. As we try to understand the impact of the U.S. strikes, it is worth paying attention to two important inflection points, which could point to a new Russian-American “Great Game” in Syria. The first involves the ongoing nature of the Russian military intervention; the second relates to the aftermath of the military campaign against the Islamic State.
These developments, and their interaction, have the potential to transform the Syrian conflict. They raise the risk of conflict involving not just the United States, but also Russia, Israel, Turkey, and Iran. At the same time, however, they potentially could create the conditions from which a Russian-American settlement might emerge.
RUSSIAN SUCCESS, AND MANY QUESTIONS
When it comes to Russian intervention, Moscow had believed that it achieved its primary objective of keeping Assad in power, albeit in a weakened state. But the Khan Sheikhoun attack may have highlighted the delicate balancing act in Russia’s efforts to translate military superiority into durable political gains. The stronger Assad becomes, the less dependent upon Russian support he will be.
While Moscow has shown a callous disregard for the human consequences of its own military intervention in Syria, the U.S. airstrikes may increase Russian influence over a Syrian regime thrown onto the defensive, at least for now. After the chemical attack in 2013, Moscow helped to broker an agreement, albeit one that was not fully implemented, to ship Syria’s chemical weapons out of the country. How will Russia react this time around to America’s more aggressive response?
Meanwhile, while neither Israel nor Hezbollah is looking for a fight, the likelihood of a conflict is increasing as the front line has inched toward the Golan Heights. On the night of March 16, Syrian air defenses fired surface-to-air missiles against Israeli aircraft, in a highly unusual response to Israeli operations inside Syrian airspace. Regime moves against Deraa, adjacent to Jordan and only some 30 kilometers from the Golan, could upset the delicate balance in the south, where Moscow has until now acquiesced in a de facto buffer zone with Jordan.
The chemical weapons attack this week increased Israel’s anxieties. Israeli officials have generally been quiet about the Syrian conflict, however in reaction to the attack Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for urgent international action to complete the disarmament of Syrian chemical weapons.
While the Trump administration has signaled that Yemen may be central to efforts to repel Iranian regional meddling, an increased American military role in Syria could bring with it a more ambitious effort to attempt to cut Iranian supply lines to Damascus. Such an effort would be celebrated in Israel and Gulf capitals, but it could increase the likelihood of a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, with huge implications for Lebanon as well. Might rising Israel-Hezbollah tensions induce Russia to curtail the full “liberation” of southern Syria, through a de-escalation of fighting that freezes the conflict roughly along the current battle lines?
The second geopolitical inflection point revolves around the coming denouement of the caliphate in Raqqa. While the Islamic State’s territorial demise is greatly desirable, it is certain to create vexing new complications in its wake, as governance and humanitarian challenges, as well as new forms of radicalization—quite possibly in a geographically dispersed form—emerge.
Just as troubling is the prospect of a reckoning between Turkey and Syria’s Kurds. Washington's efforts to forestall this may become increasingly difficult to avoid as the ground campaign against Raqqa becomes imminent. This helps explain why U.S. military forces interposed themselves in Manbij earlier this year to reduce the likelihood of a direct clash between Kurdish and Turkish forces.
The key question is who takes Raqqa? Ankara has proposed the mobilization of 50 Syrian Arab tribes under Turkish leadership, while Saudi Arabia has reiterated its willingness to send ground troops to Syria. But Ankara’s main objective is to disrupt the territorial continuity of the Syrian Kurdish enclave in northern Syria. Saudi Arabia, in turn, is focused primarily on the Arabian Peninsula, and Yemen in particular, with the kingdom having apparently written Syria off.
The Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, has apparently concluded that the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces is the only ground force capable of liberating Raqqa for the foreseeable future.
This is unacceptable to Turkey, which views the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) as indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers Party, which Turkey holds responsible for tens of thousands of deaths since the 1970s and which NATO has declared a terrorist organization. Territory seized by the Kurds in northern Syria is unlikely to be voluntarily surrendered later, so the implications of a Kurdish liberation of Raqqa would be significant not only for the future political composition of Syria, but also for the ethnic dynamics of the broader Middle East for decades to come.
TOWARD A ‘GREAT POWER’ MOMENT?
Nearly six years of international negotiations have failed to move the Syrian conflict closer to resolution. But, although no visible roadmap has yet been articulated, Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed an eagerness to explore a long-term political settlement with Russia.
Might the time be right for a Russian-American “great power” moment in Syria? There seem to be possible parallels between Moscow’s presumed interest in avoiding a blowup between Israel and Hezbollah and U.S. efforts to avoid conflict between Turkey and the PYD and its military arm, the People’s Protection Units. If there is a Russian-American modus vivendi to be had, it may well involve the creation of informal zones of influence that balance the competing core interests of the various stakeholders in Syria’s highly complex geopolitical tangle—Israel, Turkey, Iran, as well as the Syrian regime, the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs.
Moscow cannot have been happy with images of gassed children, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has always been more respectful of diplomacy backed by hard power. Does the American retaliation against the Assad regime create an opening for a settlement with Russia—or does it risk a dangerous escalation? Can Turkish acquiescence to a Kurdish offensive against Raqqa be bought through a U.S.-supported cordon sanitaire that reduces the flow of refugees north and allays Turkish concerns about a unified Kurdish region along its southern border? Would Russia be willing—and able—to implement some degree of “boxing out” of Iran’s and Hezbollah’s role in Syria that would reduce the risk of Israeli involvement? Are there sufficient grounds for agreement between Washington and Moscow to impose a new geopolitical arrangement that would give neither side everything it wants but might help contain the fighting? And could such an understanding be forced on the local actors?
The answers could go a long way in determining whether the catastrophic Syrian civil war can begin to be unwound, or whether the fall of Aleppo and Raqqa are simply markers along the road to further death and destruction.