In Syria, Russia seeks a way to secure its gains and keep American influence at bay

Sarah Lain
Russia is believed to have at personnel and materiel at the Syrian airfield attacked by the US - Syrian government TV

Although Russia was informed of the strike just before it happened, it must have been surprised after a long period of such little backlash from Western nations for its actions in Syria, other than strong words in the UN Security Council. Dmitry Peskov has called it a ‘violation of international law’ and ‘aggression against a sovereign state’ which, if the circumstances were not so tragic, would be laughable given Russia’s actions in Ukraine.  In a rather exaggerated fashion, Russian Senator Igor Morozov has compared this airstrike to the bombing of Yugoslavia, intervention in Iraq and the destruction of Libya. Clearly, the fading hopes of any grand bargain between the US and Russia over Syria seems farther away, as shown by the Kremlin statement that this airstrike dealt a "serious blow" to Russia-US relations.

The US airstrike is the strongest protest yet against the lengths the Syrian government, suspected to be behind the chemical attack that killed over 80 people including children, will go to ‘win’ the civil war. Comments from the US administration highlight that this is a signal to Russia too, with Rex Tillerson urging Russia to rethink its support for the Assad regime. But does Russia have influence over Assad?

Russia clearly has leverage over Assad and his forces, given that without the Russian intervention in 2015 the Assad government certainly would not be in the strong position it is now, if it was around at all. Assad has personally been emboldened and further legitimised by the territorial gains only possible with Russian support, particularly the success in Aleppo.

However, there are no signs that Russian intends to use this leverage to limit or deter the way in which the Assad government behaves. Leverage does not necessarily equate to influence or control of the military operations, however, but Russia is as interested in consolidating the Syrian government’s position in order to draw the military intervention closer to a conclusion. Russia cannot let itself criticise its ally, let alone condemn its actions, highlighted by the numerous vetoes and defensive rhetoric in the UN. Russia’s success in Syria is now more intertwined with the fate of Assad, as he is still synonymous with the state institutions Russia wants and needs to preserve in defence against Western regime change.

Russia is now deploying one of its newest vessels, the frigate Admiral Grigorovich, to the Eastern Mediterranean  Credit: Yoruk Isik/Reuters

This US action is unlikely to signal an intervention. US officials have said that this was a one-off to deter the Syrian government. Trump did say it has changed his view of Syria and Assad "very much" but that does not mean that the US is in favour of regime change, particularly given the power vacuum immediate removal of Assad would create. However, this protest on the Syrian government offensive is new to the conflict and will likely have rattled the Kremlin.  

The Russian response is also about containing US actions further – Russia has suspended the de-confliction agreement from 2015 that was a significant risk prevention measure to ensure Russian and US planes did not collide over Syria. This puts pressure on the US, as if collisions occur, Russia will squarely blame this on the US for its provocation. Russia has also pledged to beef up Syria’s air defence, posturing that if they see fit to defend themselves, they might shoot a US plane down. It is convenient for the Russian narrative, as they can now deflect attention from the chemical attacks to the US actions.

There is little appetite for escalation between international powers in this situation. However, even if Russia and the US may wish to avoid further confrontation, less can be said of the Syrian government. If the Syrian government did choose to escalate, with or without Russia’s support, then the ball would be back in the US court to respond, further testing the Trump Administration’s stand on the Middle East.

Sarah Lain is a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute 

Map of US airstrike on al-Shayrat airfield

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