The air strikes ordered by Donald Trump on Syria have made one of the most vicious wars in recent years even more volatile, raising the spectre of a confrontation between the world's two most powerful international military powers.
The launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the USS Porter and USS Ross at Sharyat airbase, supposedly used for the chemical attack by the regime on Idlib, was an operation limited in scope. But what then unfolded has ratcheted up tension between the US and Russia to a combustible level.
Moscow suspended the communication system under which the US and Russia exchange information on operations to avoid inadvertent clashes between their respective forces in Syria. Vladimir Putin, who denounced the air strikes, as an “illegal act of aggression” also ordered the frigate, Admiral Grigorovitch, armed with cruise missiles, to move from the Black Sea to the Syrian port of Tartus and for a fresh batch of the S-400 and S-300 surface-to-air missiles, which are already stationed in Syria in large numbers, to be sent to protect Russian and regime forces.
The Kremlin accused Mr Trump of abandoning his election campaign pledge to form a common front in Syria against terrorism. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said: “Instead of the previously touted idea of a joint fight against the main enemy – Islamic State – the Trump administration has shown that it will carry out a fierce battle against the lawful government of Syria”.
The developments came on a day when:
- The US envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, said America was “prepared to do more if necessary” and would not stand by while chemical weapons were used
- The Pentagon said it was investigating whether Russia took part in the chemical weapons attacked that killed up to 100 civilians in Idlib on Tuesday
- The UK Government said it “fully supported” President Trump’s air strikes
- The Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, warned the US strike came “within an inch” of sparking military clashes with his country’s forces
- The governor of Homs province claimed that the American strikes killed seven people, including four children
The Russians did not activate their anti-aircraft missiles during the Idlib air strikes, but the angry stance taken by Moscow was seen as sending a message that further assaults on its Syrian allies may not be treated with such forbearance.
“Vladimir Putin has built up a reputation as a tough leader who stands by his friends. He cannot maintain that reputation if he allows repeated American air strikes on Assad’s forces: the Trump administration needs to be careful about that,“ said Robert Emerson, a security analyst.
The Syrian opposition expressed hope that the attack will be the first of many. Mohamed Alloush, a senior official of the Jaish al Islam militia, said “hitting one airbase is not enough, there are 26 airbases that target civilians”. Saleh Khatib, an activist, demanded to know “What is the difference between Bashar murdering a hundred people with Sarin and burning them to death with barrel bombs? Stopping his planes from flying will stop people, women, children, being killed. Surely, the Americans must know that.”
The Pentagon stated that further military strikes by the US would not be necessary as long as Bashar al-Assad’s regime desisted from using chemical and biological weapons. It stated that all attempts had been made to ensure there were no Russian casualties. “There are Russians at the base and we took extraordinary precautions to not target areas where the Russians are”, said spokesman Captain Jeff Davis. However, Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, was unaware of this, adding to a sense of confusion in the decision-making process in Washington. He insisted “there were no discussions or prior contacts, nor had there been any since the attack with Moscow”.
The level of accusations and recriminations rose through the day and the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, lashed out at the Syrian regime and its backers, Iran, as well as Russia. President Assad, she said: “Is not the only guilty party The Iranian government bears a significant responsibility. The Russian government also bears considerable responsibility. Every time Assad has crossed the line of human decency, Russia has stood beside him.”
“The world is waiting for the Russian government to act responsibly in Syria. The world is waiting for Russia to reconsider its misplaced alliance with Bashar al-Assad. The United States will no longer wait. Those days are over. The US took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more but we hope that will not be necessary.”
Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, accused the US of a “barbaric and flagrant act. This treacherous act of aggression is a grave violation of the charter of the United Nations as well as all international laws and norms,” he said.
António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, urged restraint and appealed for the warring nations to pursue a political, rather than military solution to the crisis in Syria.
But the mood continued to be belligerent and combative. “Russia and Iran won’t be quiet against such acts which violate interests of the region, we cannot tolerate that”, said Allaeddin Boroujerdi, head of parliamentary committee on national security in Tehran.
In Moscow, Major-General Igor Konashenkov, defence minister spokesman, warned that Russia would “strengthen the Syrian air defence system and increase the efficiency to protect Syria’s most sensitive infrastructure facilities as quickly as possible”.
But a former head of the British Army has said US missile strikes against the Assad regime could provide an opportunity to push Russia towards a negotiated peace in Syria.
Richard Dannatt told The Independent the display of American military might had demonstrated the US was now prepared to act and show leadership in Syria.
Ex-Defence Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind agreed, claiming the unexpected US attack could fundamentally change Russian and Syrian decision making in the Syrian conflict.
The pair were speaking ahead of high-profile meetings between Western and Russian diplomats, including a trip by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to Moscow next week.
Lord Dannatt said the missile strikes were “the right thing to do”, adding: “It says that Donald Trump is not Barrack Obama.
“That’s actually quite reassuring, Trump has been banging on about ‘America first’ and all the rest of it, but it actually shows that the world’s most powerful country and most economically successful country is willing to show a bit of leadership.”
He added: “Diplomacy is always better when it is backed up by strength. The velvet glove needs to have an iron fist within it.
“So I don’t think this should take us in to further military activity inevitably, but should take us more enthusiastically to Geneva around the conference table. Donald Trump needs to think very carefully what he’s next going to say to Vladimir Putin, who is a bit stuck on this.”
The head of the army between 2006 and 2009 argued that the Russian President’s diplomatic and political credibility had been damaged by Assad’s use of chemical weapons, given that the country had vouched for the regime’s claim that they were all destroyed.
Sir Malcom said that the military action had created a platform for a new diplomatic push against Moscow.
He said: “The Russians have seriously miscalculated. It would have been much smarter for them to say ‘we are appalled and we will make sure this cannot happen again’, that’s what they did in 2013.
“They didn’t say Syria doesn’t have chemical weapons, they said to Obama we can do a deal, we can get rid of them.”
The ex-cabinet minister said the last thing Moscow wants is a military confrontation with the United States in Syria and up to now Mr Putin had assumed he could avoid one.
But Sir Malcolm added: “Now they are in a mess because they had thought that by vetoing in the UN Security Council, that would in practise prevent the Americans from doing anything. That has been shown to be a false assumption.”
Mr Johnson will head to Moscow within days on a trip that had been scheduled before the US action. His trip will be followed by one from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later in the week.