Moscow to Pursue More Independent Path Toward Political Settlement in Syria

Following the US-led airstrikes against Syria, the three Astana partners are expected to revise their common goals, as well as previous agreements. This is especially important because Turkey distanced itself from Russia and Iran, declaring support for the US attack. Therefore, if they fail to reach new understandings over their end goals and real strategies, the situation would be even more complicated, writes Valdai Club expert Hamidreza Azizi.

Which objects became the targets and why? Is it possible to state certainly that chemical weapons were used by Syrian government troops, and not by terrorists, while the results of the OPCW are not ready yet?

The Unites States and its allies claim that they have hit the targets related to the Syrian government’s chemical capabilities or those which have been used in conducting the so-called chemical attacks. However, taking into account two important points would cast serious doubts on these claims: first of all, even the Western countries, which have been insisting on the “use” of the chemicals by Damascus have stated that they don’t have detailed information about the issue and as such, no independent international investigation has been conducted so far to address these claims. On the other hand, the Syrian government had previously agreed to its chemical disarmament and this has been acknowledged by the related international organizations.

Although the western states were completely aware of these facts, after days of increasing threats by the US over showing a response to the Syrian government, they had no option but to conduct a military move, at least symbolic, in order not to lose their international credibility. Given the fact that Russia had established some communication channels with the US over the issue to prevent its bases, facilities and forces from being hit by the strike, it could be said that the strike was mostly symbolic, against the targets that had already been evacuated.

As for the question of who had conducted the alleged chemical attack, one should remember that the Syrian government, with the support of Russia, had the upper hand in Ghouta and was on the verge of total victory in the area. So, it appears highly illogical that the Assad government had ordered the use of chemicals. On the other hand, the Russian Ministry of Defense had long warned that the terrorists were preparing to do a provocation by using chemical weapons, so the more probable scenario is that the move was conducted by the terrorists to use it as an excuse against Damascus.

How will the international community and Russia react to the missile attacks?

A very important point in the latest developments was that despite its huge efforts, the US failed to create a unified western front to act against the Syrian government and among its NATO partners, only the UK and France agreed to join forces for this purpose. Only after the strike, the US partners declared their support for the move. It seems that other western nations have different agendas and pursue different goals which are not necessarily compatible with a military escalation. Germany is a good example in this regard which clearly refused to join the military move.

As for the Russian response, it seems that Moscow has already shown a calculated reaction to the developments. Since the first stage of the US threats, Moscow tried to move toward de-escalating the situation by establishing some new communication channels with the American side, while clearly indicating that it would not tolerate any act against its interests in Syria. In doing so, Russia also managed to buy time for its ally Damascus to evacuate the possible targets. Now that the strikes have been done, it seems that Moscow will try on the one hand to de-legitimize the move, using international bodies such as the UN and at the same time, pursue a more independent path toward political settlement in Syria, relying more than before on the alternative mechanisms such as the Astana process and the Syrian National Congress.

How will these strikes be perceived in the United States, considering that Trump gave the order without Congress approval?

There is no doubt that one of the main aims of US President Donald Trump was to distract the American public opinion from the problems with which his administration is currently struggling and to show that he is the real man in charge and a powerful leader. As far as the public opinion is concerned it seems that Trump has been to a great extent successful, because the American mainstream media have successfully sold the idea to the public that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical attack and should be punished. Therefore, Trump can now argue to the public that what he has done has been in line with the US leadership role.

However, it seems that Trump faces a harder task when it comes to the political sphere, as the unilateral move, without Congress approval, increases the pressures by his Democrat rivals – and even some moderate Republicans – who consider Trump’s decisions harmful to the US interests and global role. At the same time, as we saw over the past several days, even some of the member of Trump’s inner circle who have a more realistic take on the military and strategic issues – e.g. Secretary of Defense James Mattis – were trying to prevent Trump from acting in an inappropriate way that would trigger a possible clash between the US and Russia. So, it is possible that even the more logical faces of Trump administration begin to look for mechanisms to contain him and decrease the risk of any uncalculated move by the US president.

Is the US-led anti-Assad coalition likely to expand? Who else could join it?

As mentioned before, even this time and despite various efforts, the US failed to bring more nations on board for its military move in Syria. At the same time, it should be noted that all the three parties of the recent strike underlined that their aim was not to overthrow Assad, but to show a response to the alleged use of chemical weapons. Considering these issues, as well as the fact that the international community was highly divided on the necessity or logic of using force against Assad, it is highly unlikely that a wider coalition could be shaped in this regard. However, it seems that in case of any consensus in the western front to target Assad directly, the American allies in the Middle East, mostly Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners would be the first ones to join, as they have long desired for a strong move against Assad. However, the whole scenario is highly unlikely given the current state of the affairs in and around Syria.

How will these airstrikes affect the situation within Syria?

I think the attacks have already started to affect the situation on the ground in Syria. On the one hand, it is likely that the Syrian government would be more able to mobilize domestic public opinion in its own favor by depicting the situation as a direct foreign plot against the Syrian sovereignty. At the same time, as Russia has already declared that it is mulling the option of providing the Syrian army with more advanced technologies, I think we should await new moves by the Syrian government against the armed militant groups in different parts of the country. Iran, as another main ally of the Syrian government, has already declared that the next targets of the Syrian army will be Idlib and the East of Euphrates.

Meanwhile, on the diplomatic scene, it is expected for the three Astana partners to revise their common goals, as well as previous agreements. It is especially important because Turkey distanced itself from its two Astana partners, declaring support for the US attack on Syria. Therefore, if the three Astana partners fail to reach new understandings over their end goals and real strategies, the situation would be even more complicated. I think we should wait for the next tripartite summit in Tehran to see the impacts of the current trend on the Astana process.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.