President of the United States, Donald Trump, decided to prove that his actions speak louder than words when he ordered the unilateral military airstrikes on the Syrian government's al-Shayrat airbase on April 6, in response to the chemical attack that killed dozens of innocent civilians in Syria's province of Idlib. CNN reports U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying that the government had "a very high level of confidence" that it was the Syrian regime that carried out the chemical attack, and described the American operation as an "overwhelming success". His British, French, German and Israeli colleagues voiced their support for the U.S. military action and condemned the tragedy. This very measured and limited military operation against the government's airbase, which reportedly killed at least six people, suggests that the new administration in Washington was willing to demonstrate that it was ready to change its almost chronic policy of non-intervention and the lack of clear objectives in the region, and was likely trying to measure Moscow's reaction to its riskier overtures.
The U.S. military response comes ahead of Mr. Tillerson's visit to Russia, which is scheduled for later today, and reinforces the idea of Mr. Trump testing President Vladimir Putin's position on the future of Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Russia has called for a "detailed and unbiased investigation" into the deadly Idlib incident that took lives of at least seventy two people, and considers the accusations groundless. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Mr. Putin, however, suggested that "unconditional support is not possible in this current world", apparently referring to Russia's support for Assad. Peskov's statement signals a possible loophole for negotiations with Tillerson and should mean that Moscow is neither prepared for, nor is it willing to have, an open confrontation with Washington.
When the first chemical incidents happened in Khan al-Asal and Al-Ghouta five years ago, the war in Syria was only just gaining its momentum. Back then, the civilized world did nothing to intervene apart from holding diplomatic discussions, negotiating deals and sending non-lethal weaponary to the rebels. Western military intervention was largely averted by the U.S.-Russia agreement aimed at completely removing the Syrian chemical stockpiles from the country. At the time, the-Assad-controlled Syria was encouraged to join the Chemical Weapons Convention to assure the world that the regime was sensible and not homicidal. In January 2016, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reported that all declared Syrian chemical arsenal had been destroyed. In its confidential report, however, the OPCW advised that Assad retained some chemical weapons capacity, without having gone into much details. At the same time, the organization expressed with "utmost confidence" that the Islamic State used chemical weapons in 2015, which gives grounds to assume that both the Assad regime and ISIS could have had an access to the chemical weapons used in Idlib. There are reportedly other forces operating on the Syrian ground in addition to the state army and the Islamic State, which are jihadists of Jabhat-al-Nusra (previously linked to Al-Qaeda), Syrian opposition forces (including salafist, islamist and moderate groups), Kurdish militias, as well as U.S., Russian, German, French, Turkish, Israeli and Iranian troops of various sizes.
With so much time and opportunity obviously lost for tougher action against Assad, and with so many actors currently engaged in the Syrian civil war, it is difficult to see how Trump is going to force Assad to go if not through aggressive military action on the ground, supported by the international community. But such an act of aggression, even if proven to be justified, is unlikely to happen with President Putin being in power in Russia. The Russian president's popularity is largely based on his sternness and wily mind, which helped him to successfully return Russia to the world stage. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that he will reverse on Assad while being in full control in Syria. The recent terrorist attack in one of St. Petersburg's underground stations only further pushes Putin toward aggressive resistance against ISIS. It seems that Mr. Trump realizes that and hardly objects to the fight against terrorism. The very fact that the military strike on the al-Shayrat airbase was so precise and limited justifies the argument that Washington would rather try to avoid a direct confrontation with Moscow. Russia deployed advanced missile systems in Syria years ago, which prevents both the terrorists and various opposition forces from effectively winning the war. There are S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems currently staged in Latakia, reportedly together with the Iskandar-M ballistic missile launchers.
With aproximately 3,000 airstrikes launched against ISIS targets in Syria by U.S and its allies in 2014, there is little reason to suggest that Mr. Trump's actions of similar intent would lead to any positive outcome in this regard, unless he is prepared to get fully involved in Syria and is supported by NATO troops. To do so, he needs a higher level of popular support at home (which is currently on the slow rise), with more troops on the ground instead of "in the air", and the Kremlin being not neccessarily interested in fighting over Assad's future, which is possible if Putin decides not to seek re-election in 2018. Mr. Peskov's ambiguous remarks about supporting Assad came a couple of days before it became known that the group of U.S. senators have proposed a bill for international investigation into alleged war crimes by the Syrian authorities. One of the senators, Joan Shain, said that "the bill was an important step on the way to guarantee that Assad and his allies would bear responsibility for their barbaric actions they committed in the past six years." The U.S. initiative was created as a result of the United Nations Security Council's failure to respond to the Idlib chemical attack, which may not be approved by Russia due to the lack of proper investigation into the incident and Moscow's traditional stance on preventing Western interventions.
Since Moscow and Washington have surprisingly managed to avoid a major clash over Syria in the last couple of years, despite all the disagreements that exist, it is quite possible that Mr. Putin could, indeed, be thinking about staying away from power next year. The volatile energy prices, together with economic sanctions imposed on Russia, do not guarantee a peaceful re-election for Mr. Putin. This is probably the reason why the president carefully reshuffled his cabinet last year, with the hawkish Chief-of-staff Sergey Ivanov having resigned, and a new Deputy Chief-of-staff Sergey Kiriyenko (prime minister under Eltsin) having joined the Russian administration a couple of months later. Similar changes may continue throughout the year and may signal a possible "liberalization" of the regime. Having said that, it does not mean that Moscow will become less involved in world affairs with or without Putin in the Kremlin. It simply means that there is always a risk that the updated Russian administration might not be as accommodating to Assad as the current one, especially if the U.S. agrees to Moscow's conditions in Syria, which must be different than merely keeping Assad in power. Tillerson's visit to Moscow is probably aimed at finding out about these prospects personally from the Russian elites.