Due to the American cruise missile strikes against the Syrian al-Shayrat airbase and the alleged destruction of six Syrian MiG-23’s (later information estimated some unspecified 20 aircraft) Russia has proclaimed it’s withdrawal from the hotline agreement with the USA regarding sharing information of flights in order to avoid confrontation between Russian and American air power in the skies over Syria. Furthermore Russia has declared that it will bolster Syrian defensive capabilities in order to protect crucial infrastructure against airstrikes.
The hopes for more normalized relations between Moscow and Washington seems to have evaporated. It seems that President Trump is implementing the same kind of policies that Hillary Clinton declared that she would if she had won the Presidential elections. At the same time Israeli airstrikes of targets outside Palmyra further brings up the temperature in the region. Tel Aviv is very concerned about the strengthened Iranian influence in Syria and Lebanon through it’s proxy, the Hezbollah, and seemingly has little against helping anyone who fights al-Assad and Iran.
However the missile strikes were allegedly announced beforehand to Moscow in order to avoid Russian casualties, something that otherwise could rapidly spiral out of hand and trigger open hostilities between the USA and the Russian Federation. The effects of the strikes, apart from the destroyed MiG’s, also seem to have been limited, with very modestly cratered runways, something that could indicate that it was a limited strike in order to appease hawkish warmongers in the West while also sending a signal of strength vs. Damascus and Moscow. That the Russians would relay this information to the Syrians was quite evident which also helps to explain why the attack was not as effective as one might assume. At the same time many that put their trust in Trump to avoid further political deterioration with Russia are becoming increasingly disillusioned with him. Had Hillary Clinton won the Presidential election a continued worsening of relations with the Kremlin would been almost certain however.
Whether it really was the Syrian Air Force that used chemical weapons against civilians or not in Khan Sheikoun is still not known although this was immediately assumed in the West. Another question is if it really was sarin gas that was used? If it for instance was chlorine gas that was used this could just as well have been the rebels, given that this agent is much more easily acquired than sarin gas, although not nearly as deadly, and that the use of this agent while attributing this to Damascus could be used to secure a propaganda victory before the upcoming conference in Geneva. And even if it really was sarin gas that was used, it is not without that such an agent could have been supplied from abroad. The Syrian regime had very little to gain by using chemical weapons in this fashion as suggested in Khan Sheikoun, especially since it was only after that Moscow through diplomatic efforts bailed Damascus out after the Gouta incident back in 2013 when President Obama threatened to strike Syrian targets after that Damascus was accused of using chemical weapons. Hence Western claims seem quite illogical. However the rebels have everything to gain in this situation.
The various opposition groups, including al-Quaida and ISIS, seem to to have taken advantage of the American cruise missile strikes against al-Shayrat airbase and have launched new offensives against government positions that have been supported by aircraft operated from al-Shayrat. Hardly surprising Moscow has used this for it´s own propaganda purposes and has expressed concerns that these offensives could have been coordinated with Washington.
The question is how far Russia is willing to go in order to secure it’s interests in Syria? Given how the West humiliated Russia back in 1999 over the war in Kosovo, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the toppling of Ghadaffi in Libya in 2011 and how Russia in response to the coup against President Yanukovych in Ukraine in 2014 occupied the Crimea, it is not likely that Russia will stand down. Russia’s interests in Syria are to important to allow the West and the Gulf States to have their way. A gas pipeline from the Gulf competing with Russian gas on the European market is from a Russian perspective unacceptable. Also, given the worsened relations with the West this has made the Tartus Naval Facilities in Syria vastly more important to Moscow from a strategic perspective. The Black Sea Navy could easily be confined to it’s home waters since the NATO-member Turkey could cut off the Bosporus for Russian shipping at an instant.
Hence it would be less than surprising if we will see a renewed Russian military build up in Syria with additional air defense systems, fighter jets and perhaps substantial deployment of ground troops. If the Kremlin would deploy a substantial armored ground force in Palmyra Syrian troops could be freed up for the front lines in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. A Russian push towards Deir-Ezzor in order to lift ISIS’s siege would serve several purposes more than just relieving government troops there. It would severely hamper ISIS’s abilities to bring in supplies and troops from the south and also create a front line as far east as possible in case of an American push westwards after the anticipated fall of ISIS’s stronghold of Raqqa.
If the USA refrains from further strikes against the Syrian government there could be a possibility for a divided Syria after the downfall of ISIS. This could be a political solution that is acceptable also for Russia and the various minorities that supports al-Assad, even tough his rule is far from democratic. The minorities are quite aware that they don’t have a future in the country if al-Assad is toppled. The ensuing power vacuum would only serve ethnic cleansing and additional refugees to Europe. Western Syria is also the stronghold of the shiite Alawite minority that also coincides with the Russian presence in the country. A parliamentary democratic Syria with pre-war borders is just a figment of imagination that only seem to exist in the minds of Western politicians that are bereft of insight of the complex realities of the Middle East. With the experiences from Iraq and Libya it stands rather clear however that the narrative of freedom and democracy for the most times is more for political consumption in West while the true intentions are to impose geopolitical interests upon states that lack the ability to counter the military might of the West and it’s regional allies.
The question is whether Donald Trump realizes that the path he now has embarked on, a path that bares a striking resemblance to the agenda of Hillary Clinton, is a very dangerous one? A path that has all the potential to become “The Black Week” of our time..