Western strikes mark further escalation in Syrian conflict

What options Russia may have to respond to the allied strikes are uncertain.
Sunday 15/04/2018
French President Emmanuel Macron (L), US President Donald Trump (C) and British Prime Minister Theresa May. (AFP)
Three nation strike. French President Emmanuel Macron (L), US President Donald Trump (C) and British Prime Minister Theresa May. (AFP)

TUNIS - Russia has promised that US, French and British strikes upon Syrian regime positions during the early hours of April 14 would carry “consequences.”

A combination of jet fighters and missiles from the western allies targeted three government positions considered complicit in the alleged gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Douma.

More than 100 missiles reportedly were launched from ships and manned aircraft during the night in strikes leaders of all three allied states have characterised as targeted and limited.

None of the allied missiles came close to the Russian bases at Tartus and Hmeimim, which are heavily protected by Moscow’s highly developed missile defence system. Syrian forces claimed to have shot down the majority of the missiles before they landed, local media reported. US Defence Secretary James Mattis said: “Right now, we have no additional attacks planned. This is a one-time shot.”

However, the secretary’s reassurances ran contrary to those of US President Donald Trump, who, in a televised address from the White House, said the United States and its allies would strike again if more chemical attacks took place.

Though the United Nations has urged calm, Russia has promised to respond to a strike they said was prompted by the stage-managed chemical attack on Douma.

Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to the strikes as an “act of aggression” in a statement released by the Kremlin. Likewise, writing on Twitter shortly after the attack, Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov said the repeated warnings Moscow had issued of an attack had gone unheard. “We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences,” he said.

What options Russia may have to respond to the allied strikes are uncertain. “It’s hard to tell what that might look like,” Jeffrey Martini, senior Middle East analyst at the RAND Corporation told The Arab Weekly shortly before the attacks took place. “They may want to use their S400 (missile defence) system but there’s the obvious risk that it might fail and fail very publicly,” he said.

The Russians could potentially launch a counter-strike at the US allied Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria. However, “we saw what happened when (Russian mercenaries with) the Wagner Group crossed east of the Euphrates on February 7. They were wiped out. They hit them with absolutely everything and I would not anticipate the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies would want to tempt that same fate twice,” Martini said.

While the risks are high, for now, they appear to be managed. On April 12, the Kremlin confirmed that the US and Russia were in continuous talks over escalating tensions. However, though both senior British and French officials stated that Russia had been notified in advance of the strikes, American General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff denied this was the case. 

Not long after the strikes, Syrian state television broadcast images of citizens celebrating in Damascus’ streets in support of President Bashar Assad. A Twitter account maintained by the office of the the president posted a tweet, saying: “The honourable cannot be humiliated” shortly after the allied attack. 

Russia has consistently denied that any chemical attack in Douma took place, with Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov telling reporters on April 13 that he had “proof that testifies to the direct participation of Britain in the organising of this provocation in Eastern Ghouta.” Konashenkov’s account stated that Douma’s first responders, the White Helmets, orchestrated the attack on London’s orders.

US, French and British officials, however, also claimed to have evidence that the Assad regime had carried out a chemical attack, utilising either sarin or chlorine gas on the formerly rebel held positions.

Questions remain. At the time of the attack, Douma’s occupying rebel force, Jaysh al-Islam, was negotiating its surrender and evacuation. All other resistance in Eastern Ghouta had either fled, surrendered or been destroyed.

“There is not a compelling explanation for why the regime would have used chemical weapons at this moment,” Martini said. “It certainly managed to complete far more complex operations, Aleppo for instance, without resorting to them. So why they would be used in a battle that was almost over is unclear.”