Missiles provoke bluster but Syria solution requires U.S. and Russia at the table: Nahlah Ayed

Nahlah Ayed looks at the increasingly strained relationship between Russia and the U.S. and how it could impact the war in Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is off to visit angry officials in Moscow next week

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump have praised each other's personal qualities and said they were hopeful they could reset relations between their countries. Trump's decision to launch missiles at a Syrian airbase this week could test those plans. (Joshua Roberts/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters)

How enraging it must have been for Russia to be rebuked for Syria's latest murderous episode.

It was Russia, after all, that had offered to be the guarantor for its horrifically errant client state, successfully persuading the U.S. in 2013 that the best answer to the regime's sarin gas attack on its own people was the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons — as opposed to a military strike.

Last week's chemical weapons attack proved the cynics right: despite the fanfare, the deal failed with unspeakable and tragic results. Syria clearly still possesses some of the world's deadliest chemical weapons, and despite denials, is willing to use them on civilians.

And then there's how little difference that deal has made to the lives of Syria's devastated and displaced.

And so the strikes once threatened under a different American president went ahead, receiving wide support as the correct response to an atrocity.

In this handout provided by the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter fires a Tomahawk land attack missile from the Mediterranean Sea. (Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

As abruptly as those Tomahawk missiles were unleashed, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson bluntly put the blame on Russia.

"So either Russia has been complicit, or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement," he said Thursday night.

Next week, Tillerson is off to a predictably angry Moscow. But despite the stony faces he's likely to be met with, the answer to solving Syria's crisis still lies in Russia — and everyone knows it.

Finger pointing and bluster

Moscow couldn't remain silent after the U.S. attack. Russia had operated mostly uncontested in Syria, so when the U.S. struck on its own, Moscow was outraged.

Damascus, too, had to cry foul. It always predicted the U.S. would attack — and when it did, the regime accused Washington of siding with the terrorists.

Iran, another ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, swiftly faulted the U.S. for complicating the regional situation, which incidentally is not an outlandish thought.

But behind the finger pointing and the bluster, any change in the immediate future will be incremental and limited because fundamentally, little has changed.

The "measured" scope of the U.S. attack is just one indication of that: a Tomahawk missile strike, even 59 of them, on just one Syrian airbase is hardly a game-changer. Targeted missile strikes were also an option the Obama administration considered but didn't exercise back in 2013.

There's no indication of a change to Russia's status as the dominant force in Syria. It has far more influence and a more significant military footprint there. And, despite the deepening political cost, it still backs Assad.

Also, retaliation by any of the parties backing Assad comes with a price that is, for various reasons, too high for the moment.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has the support of Russia and Iran. (Reuters)

Russia is still hoping for a wider deal with the U.S. that would end its international isolation, and along with Syria, it welcomes U.S. assistance in fighting ISIS.

So while it won't sit quietly by while Washington unilaterally intervenes, it is also uninterested in a wider or more protracted conflict.

Iran is also committed to shoring up Assad. But, condemnations aside, it is wary of provoking U.S. President Donald Trump, and of jeopardizing the nuclear deal it struck with world powers, including the U.S., ending its own isolation and sparking a much-needed economic boom.

Judging the impact

So in the coming days and months, watch for indirect responses: a squeeze on U.S. troops or interests in Iraq, or an uptick of violence in eastern Ukraine. Hezbollah, which is prominently contributing to Assad's survival, might also act out.

Whether there is any impact on the course of Syria's civil war depends on how much talking these missile strikes manage to prompt.

No doubt the strikes have helped assuage the feeling among many Syrians of isolation and abandonment by the international community. And though limited, they are being celebrated as the first hint of punishment to the regime after more than six years of a punishing war.

Youth inspect the rubble of a damaged house after an airstrike earlier this week on rebel-held Daraa Al-Balad. (Alaa Al-Faqir/Reuters)

But Russia continues to be Syria's main broker — and one that wants a more equitable relationship with the U.S.

The violation of the chemical deal sets a terrible precedent and will test Moscow's relationship with Damascus. People risked their lives to verify and collect Syria's stockpile in an active war zone. Then mostly U.S. personnel carried out the destruction at sea.

The process bought the Syrian regime four years of virtual impunity from the international community as it killed thousands more innocent civilians by other means.

When the deal failed, Russia, as guarantor, took (another) credibility hit.

Now, it may actually be the threat of more U.S. strikes that will break the Syria stalemate. That threat has now been backed by a very real demonstration.

Syria's backers have been put on notice. But that can only be effective if it is made clear the U.S. will act again.

The dividends of such threats can only be realized at the negotiating table, but only if it's American and Russian officials doing the talking.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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