BY STEWART KATO
The Syrian conflict continues to affect the international community as regional and global powers struggle to stabilize the country. Entering its seventh year with 465,000 Syrians killed in fighting, a million injured, and over 12 million displaced from their homes, this conflict grew from peaceful protests of the government in 2011. The emergence of multiple factions divided on ethnic, ideological, or religious lines further complicated the situation as Syria became a confusing mix of battling parties. Foreign nations attempt to negotiate policies to stabilize the nation, as regional powers such as Iran and Turkey support opposing sides, while Russia and the United States fail to effectively collaborate a plan. The election of American President Donald Trump, and the shift in policy towards the Syrian conflict, could potentially initiate a new round of Russian-American negotiations.
Russia was left without restraint to influence events in Syria during the Obama administration as President Barack Obama decreased American involvement to an all-time low. The Obama administration maintained a policy of light involvement in the Syrian conflict, restricting itself to aiding specific rebel groups or vocally condemning events. This reflected a policy aimed at avoiding entanglement in Middle Eastern conflict (such as the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003), or potentially alienating regional powers such as Iran or Turkey. Russia worried little about increasing involvement in 2015, aiding President Bashar al-Assad in a move that eventually stabilized the tottering regime. The obvious contrast in American and Russian policy was highlighted in December 2016, when Stephen Townsend, a Lieutenant General in the US Army, stated that the United States would do nothing to hinder the Russian and Syrian regime’s destructive advance [other than issuing a statement condemning the actions and crimes of Russia, Iran, and Assad’s forces]. Regional powers began to believe that the United States was uninterested in the region, leading to the US being left out of negotiations between Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Syria at the end of 2016. Under Obama’s administration, the US was pushed to the ’back burner’, as regional powers questioned American commitment to finding a solution while Russia seemed ready to reassert itself as a player in Middle East affairs.
The first months of the Trump administration witnessed a continuation of the Obama administration’s ‘hands-off’ policy towards Syria. By March 2017, Trump’s administration increased US troop numbers as well as support for coalition forces in Syria fighting IS. Trump’s administration otherwise seemed ready to continue previous policies, prioritizing fighting IS over getting involved in Syria. American UN representative Nikki Haley openly stated that the United States no longer saw the removal of Assad as a priority. Russia looked to remain the major player in finding a solution for the Syrian conflict until April 4th, 2017. On this date, the rebel held town of Khan Sheikhoun suffered a chemical attack that killed at least 89 people, with another 541 injured including women and children. The international community was quick to condemn the attack, and blame the Assad regime as the perpetrator. The world waited for the American government to react, following President Trumps statements that the attacks were an “affront to humanity” as the killing of innocent children and babies crossed “many lines”. Many wondered if President Trump would repeat President Obama’s response to the Assad’s August 2013 chemical attack on Syrian rebels, condemning the attack without bringing Assad to heel – a choice that disappointed the international community. On April 6th, 2017 Trump’s administration carried out a missile strike on the Syrian Al Shayrat airbase, shaking public attention.
The Syrian government and Russia were quick to condemn the attack and state that the missile strike damaged their already weak relations with the US. Syria responded by moving their Air Force into positions protected by Russian air defense systems, while Russian warships appeared off Syria’s coast. American representatives stated they were disappointed in the angry rhetoric of Russian representatives, as Russia declared the missile strike to be “illegitimate” and in support of terrorism. Russian delegates to the UN vetoed efforts by the United Nations to both condemn the chemical attack, and pressure the Syrian government to cooperate with the international investigation. Russian delegates to the UN accused the West of being obsessed with overthrowing Assad, missing opportunities to establish peace in the region. In contrast, Matthew Rycroft, the UK’s ambassador to the UN, accused the Russians of choosing Assad over peace. Other nations saw the American missile strike as an appropriate response, while still cautioning restraint and peaceful negotiations. Regional powers such as Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia approved of the strike, and believed it sent a message to Syria, as well as other ‘renegade’ nations (such as Iran and North Korea), that the United States would follow through on its words. In addition to this missile strike, the United States imposed sanctions targeting Syrian scientific officials responsible for enabling the Syrian regime’s ability to carry out a chemical attack. This move cemented the idea that the United States would not stand for any nation involved in breaking international laws.
The Syrian chemical attack of April 2017 significantly impacted the international community’s interaction regarding Syria. While these events most likely will not lead to a significant increase of American or UN troops to Syria, the incident has reignited American and Western consciousness of the region – reducing the autonomy that Russia and Syria previously enjoyed. The US that had seemed ready to allow Moscow to lead negotiations, may begin taking a more active role in future negotiations. Many key American allies in the Middle East that previously drifted towards Russia (Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and Jordan) saw the American missile strike as the return of an America actively engaged in the region, and ready to back up its words with action. Nations see the missile strike, along with the call for nations to join in ending the conflict in Syria, as a sign that the US is ready to lead the international community in efforts to stabilize the region.
One of the greatest consequences however, is the loss of Russian prestige following the incident. The chemical attack damaged Russia’s image in the international community. With its intensely close ties to the Syrian regime many wonder how Russia could not have known about the chemical weapons. The possibility that the Assad regime fooled its Russian ally, and hid some of its chemical weapons would mean that Russia really has no power over their Syrian subordinate. Whether this reveals Russia as a liar that cannot be trusted, or that Russia is unable to control Syria, this weakens regional respect for Russia which has advertised itself as a resurgent global strongman. Regional powers such as Turkey and its President Tayyip Erdogan, seem prepared to rethink their friendship with Russia, and seek to build better relations with the United States. The chemical attack, and subsequent American response, have strengthened the American position while weakening Russia. The United States is hailed as a law keeper by holding Assad’s regime accountable for its transgressions, while Russia seems unable or unwilling to control its ally. The United States and Russia will now have to choose between continuing a diplomatic stalemate leaving the Syrian conflict unsettled, or collaborating to negotiate a solution.
Though Russian-American relations seem to be at an all-time low, circumstances may force the two powers to discuss a ceasefire. Russia claimed that the American missile strike damaged relations, while Russian leaders have continually stated their openness to working with the United States (though this was stipulated with Russian set conditions). A portion of Western representatives view the removal of Assad as vital to a stable Syria, recognizing the need for Russian-American cooperation to bring stability to the war torn region. Previous ceasefires between Syrian rebel and government forces have often failed due to the inability of negotiating powers to enforce the agreement. These failures are exacerbated by the United States lacking a required mutual respect in the region to hold its allies to a ceasefire, or pressure Russia to restrain its allies as nations have doubts that the United States would back its agreements with force. At present, the two powers are positioned to renew negotiations to not only ‘save face’, but to regain respect both internationally and domestically.
Russia and the US have very apparent competing agendas within the region. However, both countries may be at a point where they must find a solution, and be prepared to enforce it. Political, religious, and humanitarian leaders throughout the world publicize the Syrian conflict as an ongoing humanitarian crisis that has been overlooked and mishandled for far too long. The Russians are desperate to display their resurgent power in the region after having suffered a blow to their international image. The Americans, who have long been criticized for their lack luster efforts in the region, can show the world that they are able to lead rival parties and find peaceful solutions to redeem their public images. Chances of reaching a resolution to the conflict in the short-term are slim. Assad’s regime hampers negotiations, and the Syrian nation has been split into warring parties divided on ethnicity, or religion. The Syrian conflict needs two global powers committed to negotiating, as well as enforcing, solutions for the region as previous accords have failed. The United States and Russia will need to design a solution that is acceptable to countries involved, and is able to effectively restrain complicated conflict that continues to cause international problems.
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Image source: wikimedia.org
About the Author
Stewart Kato holds a B.A. in History with a focus on 20th century Europe and East Asia from UC Berkeley. His research focuses on how international politics, economics, and history affect foreign relations.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.