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Syria attacks: the real impact is in Moscow

Its real impact will be on the plummeting relationship between Moscow and the West.

The arguments about what happened in Douma on April 7 and who was responsible have brought Russian-American relations to their lowest point in decades. On both sides, the rhetoric has been melodramatic, even irresponsible.

He continued to respond to the Russian threat to shoot down American missiles by saying: "Get ready Russia, because they will come, nice and new, and smart!"

As the week progressed, Russian officials said between insisting that there was no attack, that the rebel groups organized it and finally that the UK planned it in a conspiracy with the voluntary rescue group of the White Helmets of Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that Moscow had "irrefutable". evidence that this was another staged incident and the special services of a state in charge of the Russophobic campaign were at stake. "

Lavrov also scratched an old Russian itch about previous Western interventions in the Middle East." God forbids anything adventurous to be done in Syria following the line of the Libyan and Iraqi experience. "Moscow's resentment of the Western intervention in Libya in 2011 borders on the obsessive.

as it was left to the Secretary of Defense of the United States, James Mattis, and the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, to devise an answer that would punish the Assad regime but prevent military escalation with Moscow.

The dissuasive effect

] Syria pledged to abandon all its chemical weapons in 2013 under an agreement mediated by Russia after a horrific attack on civilians not far from the site of last week's incident.The alternative, threatened by President Obama, was military action

Either Syria did not deliver all of its populations (opinion in France and Germany) or started producing chemical weapons again.

Chemical weapons have killed a small fraction of the more than 400,000 Syrians who have died in the civil war. But for the USA UU And a large part of the international community, the use of these weapons is especially abhorrent. British Prime Minister Theresa May spoke of the "erosion" of the global ban on chemical weapons, while the top UN official for disarmament, Thomas Markram, told the Security Council on Monday: "The use of chemical weapons does not it can become the status quo, nor can we continue to fail the victims of such weapons. "
That was the vision of the Trump Administration when it launched cruise missiles at a Syrian air base a year ago after the sarin attack on civilians in Khan Sheikhoun. These strikes had the purpose of dissuading; as such, they failed. As the International Rescue Committee said this week, the response to Khan Sheikhoun "did not change the calculation of the warring parties or make Syrian civilians safer."

The election this time was a major impediment – or to be seen as a blow. But the escalation brings risks of a wider conflict, risks that the Russians have wanted to proclaim.

Mattis said at a congressional hearing on Thursday: "At a strategic level, how will we prevent this scale from spiraling out of control?" The Russian ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, painted a darker image when he said that the priority was to avoid war. When asked if he was referring to the war between the United States and Russia, he replied: "We can not exclude any possibility, unfortunately."

A nadir for Washington and Moscow

The biggest impact of these strikes is that they will deepen the visceral hostility that characterizes relations between the US. UU and Russia, now at its lowest point in decades.

Moscow's delight at Donald Trump's election victory gave way to frustration and then alienation as investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 elections dragged on.

There were some cracks of light: President Trump often said that getting along with Putin was desirable. Last summer, the United States and Russia agreed to monitor an area of ​​distrust in southern Syria. When Trump met with Putin at the G20 summit, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: "The relationship is too important not to move forward"; The area of ​​despair was the "first indication that the United States and Russia could work together in Syria."

That seems a long time horrible. In the following months, the language has become more acute; Moscow's accusations are increasingly extravagant.

The two governments exchange beards in the United Nations, accusing each other of deceit and bad faith; Arms control agreements are fraying. Trump's nominee for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week: "President Trump's national security strategy identified Russia as a danger to our country."

The most damaging to Russia are the sanctions recently announced by the US Department of the Treasury. UU it had a devastating effect on those closest to the Kremlin and erased millions of the value of companies owned by Russian oligarchs. Oleg Deripaska's company, Rusal, warned that it could default on part of its debt, which in turn would weaken the main Russian banks.
The expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats by the US UU And Europe after the poisoning of Skripal in the United Kingdom was a clear warning to Moscow that his "reckless indifference", as one British official said, would not go unanswered. Moscow responded by expelling dozens of Western diplomats and even accused the United Kingdom of organizing the poisoning.

President Trump was probably not exaggerating when he tweeted on Wednesday: "Our relationship with Russia is worse now than ever, and that includes the Cold War." It's worse because it's unpredictable.

What can happen next

Both Washington and Moscow realize that a direct military confrontation in Syria could rapidly spiral upward. They will take steps to avoid that. But Russia can silently encourage representatives and allies in Syria to attack US forces east of the Euphrates River and along the Iraq-Syria border.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to the supreme leader of Iran, said on Thursday: "We hope that big steps will be taken to free this area and expel the US occupiers."

Russia may also decide not to stop the Iranian militia in southern Syria for provoking Israel. President Putin has a good relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but this week he warned him about new military actions in Syria after the air strikes against the Iranian militia last weekend that were attributed to the Israelis.

In the midst of this volatility, there is one certainty. The strikes of the USA UU And his allies will not change the military situation in Syria or a jot. They are a statement, not a strategy. Jennifer Cafarella at the Institute for the Study of War says that "they are unlikely to alter the general trajectory of the Syrian civil war and will not prevent Assad from continuing to assassinate his rebel population with conventional ammunition."

The attacks of 2017 may have destroyed almost 20% of Assad's air force; but since then the rebels have lost ground. In fact, over the past two years, the Assad regime, reinforced by Russian and Iranian firepower, has chosen one rebel enclave after another, leaving hungry communities in submission.

Some patches in southern Syria are still outside the control of the regime, as well as much of the northwestern province of Idlib. A strip of northern Syria has become a Kurdish enclave, protected by a cable of two thousand American troops. But the "backbone" of Syria is under regime control, and Idlib can ignite below.

A country in ruins

The price of victory: a country in ruins. Nearly 700,000 Syrians have been expelled from their homes since the beginning of this year, according to the UN, which adds to the 6.5 million people who are already internally displaced. Around 5.6 million Syrians still languish in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

Moscow has neither the money nor the imagination to turn its scorched-earth policy into a political agreement. His efforts, together with Turkey and lately Saudi Arabia, to bring the Syrian opposition to a peace process, have so far come to nothing. The United States and its allies have said they will not provide aid for reconstruction in any area controlled by Assad.

Against Russia's relentless determination to support Assad, US policy in Syria was vacillating and cautious during the Obama administration and has been incomprehensible since then. Weeks after Tillerson promised $ 200 million to stabilize northern Syria, President Trump froze the funds and said he wanted US forces in northern Syria "very soon."

Such a measure would undermine the fight against the remains of ISIS and betray the groups that have fought with the United States. More significantly, it would deliver Washington's best currency in Syria: the presence of its armed forces in a fifth of Syrian territory beyond regime control, and its best chance to combat Iranian influence in Syria.

While these missile attacks will not affect the strategic balance in Syria, they will entrench rival parties in the region, further delaying the already grim prospects for a UN-sponsored peace process. Russia will double its support for the regime, the Iranian militia will seek opportunities to attack Israel, Turkey will seek new incursions against the Kurds. The main cities will remain under the control of the Assad regime, but will continue to depend on Moscow and Tehran for their survival.

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