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Russia on the defensive in Syria

Apr 10,2018 - Last updated at Apr 10,2018

A week is a long time in politics as recent events in Syria continue to underline. Only last week, US President Donald Trump shocked and confused both allies and foes when he announced, off-script, that he wanted to pull the US military out of Syria “very soon”. That statement took the Pentagon and the Department of State by surprise. But a few days later, the White House said that the president was now in favour of staying in Syria for a short term but still wanted an exit. 

But in the wake of various reports that the Assad regime has bombed the besieged suburb of Douma with chemical gas earlier in the week, resulting in the death of at least 100 civilians, President Trump, who one year ago ordered missile strikes against a Syrian airbase in retaliation of a similar chemical attack in Idlib, found himself on the offensive once more. Blaming Russia and Iran for supporting “animal Assad”, the president vowed to take action, promising that the regime will pay a big price!

France too condemned the chemical attack and indicated that it was ready to take action. Russia warned against targeting the regime on the basis of what it said was fake news, denying that Damascus had used banned agents in Douma. But less than 24 hours later, Russia and Syria accused Israel of striking an airbase near Homs, killing dozens, including Iranians. The Pentagon was quick to deny involvement. Israel did not comment, but its Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that the Israeli air force was once again active in Syria. Less than two months ago, Israel struck a number of targets in Syria following the downing of an F-15 by Syrian anti-air missiles. Trump’s threats, the Israeli strike and Russia’s stern warnings have reshuffled the cards in Syria one more.

The coming 48 hours will be crucial. The UN Security Council was to meet late Monday, twice, to discuss the alleged chemical attack in Douma. The Russians will certainly block any action against their Syrian ally. Whether the US president will order another strike, probably with the French and even the British joining in, against Syrian targets or not remains to be seen. The odds are that he will follow his threats with deeds. Such a development will certainly test the Russians and the Iranians to some extent. What will be the response of the Kremlin is now the bigger question?

Israel was rattled by Trump’s earlier statement on pulling out from Syria. The Israeli press reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a “tense” phone call with the US president on the issue. Lieberman hinted that Israel was not consulted on the matter. It is no secret that Israel is alarmed by Iran’s growing presence in Syria and it never hesitated to take preemptive action against Hizbollah and Iranian targets in that country.

Monday’s raid was the latest in a series of such strikes that Israel had
carried out in recent years. The possibility of a major confrontation
between Israel and Iran in Syria is becoming real every day, especially that President Bashar Al Assad and his allies are closer than ever to declaring victory.

But the unfolding events of the past week raise more questions that beg
answers. For starters, why would the Syrian regime risk drawing an
international backlash and US’ wrath by using chemical weapons in Douma when it had already scored a decisive victory there? And why commit such a foolish act less than a week after the US president announced that he was looking for a speedy withdrawal from Syria? In addition, why would Assad put himself in such a position when the world has come to the realisation that the Syrian president has won and will remain in power?

Furthermore, it is a known fact that Israel coordinates with Russia over its military operations in Syrian airspace. Were the Russians informed of Monday’s Israeli strike? If they were, it now appears that Israel has told the US of its preemptive strike, why would Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov describe the attack on T4 airbase as a dangerous development? What are the ramifications of the Israeli attack on relations between Moscow and Tehran, a week after the leaders of the two allied nations met in Ankara to define each party’s scope of influence in Syria? And will the Russians end their coordination with Israel as a result of the raid?

Regardless, the Douma incident and the Israeli strike have forced a new
agenda onto key players in Syria. The clash in Syria and over Syria between various players, especially the US and Russia, will further complicate relations between Washington and Moscow. A punitive US strike against Assad will force President Vladimir Putin to retaliate in some measure. Syria is now the epicentre of a major international faceoff. Maybe this is what Israel wanted all along!


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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