Syrian Airstrikes and Russia: Where Do US And Europe Go From Here?
16 April, 2018

On the early hours of Saturday, the United States, together with its allies, France and the United Kingdom, launched airstrikes on Syrian chemical weapon facilities in response to the suspected use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Al Assad's regime.

Tensions between US and Assad-allied Russia have been escalating over Syria for some time now.

Moscow initially denied the chemical attack took place and later claimed it was set up by foreign agents. While Russia went on to condemn Friday’s airstrike, it has limited its response to the military action in Syria to criticism of the US and its allies.  

Hromadske spoke with Jeffrey Gedmin, Senior Fellow at Georgetown University and analyst on Russia relations as well Benjamin Haddad, a fellow at Hudson Institute, about what this means for US-Russia relations and how this will impact Europe and Ukraine.  

What does this all mean for geopolitics and what can we expect?

Jeff: I don’t think we know, for a number of reasons. Because it’s early, because we have an American President who is early in his administration, 14 months or so because we have an American President, who has been exceptionally volatile and unpredictable in any utterance having to do with Russia. If this was a retaliatory punitive strike that could possibly affect the behavior of a barbaric, criminal regime I would applaud that. I’m equally and probably more interested if this emerges as an element of a strategy on Syria that’s serious and sustainable and I don’t know if it is not, we won’t know if it is or not.

Ben, you had recently written that France has to support an attack in case of chemical weapon use. So would you say about this situation?

Ben: I agree with Jeff. First I think it was very important for the United States and Europeans to react together to this use of chemical weapons against civilians by the Syrian regime because we had set a red line. You remember that the Obama administration had set a red line against the use of chemical weapons but did not act upon it in September 2013 and that sent, I think, a message of weakness, a message of lack of determination to the Syrian regime, to its backers in Iran and Russia and I think it reverberated around the world. I think when Russia decided to intervene in Ukraine for example, they remember that the Obama administration did not act on its own red line. I think it was an important message to send to our adversaries and it was important to increase the cost to the Assad regime. I agree with Jeff, it’s not clear today if it’s in a broader strategy in Syria, if the administration wants to take further steps, maybe to fight against Assad, isolate him and fight against his backers but I think it’s a good first step. And the second thing I would say, to go back to your question on the geopolitics of this, is that it is a further step in the confrontation between the United States and Russia. It’s particularly interesting because this is a president, Donald Trump, who was elected with a very pro-Putin message. During his campaign, he said ‘why can’t we get along with Russia?’, ‘we need to cooperate on Ukraine and Syria’ and what you’ve seen over the last few months is that this cooperation does not exist, it’s not working and on the contrary the administration has taken steps to send Javelins to Ukraine, to implement new sanctions, to expel Russian diplomats after the [ex-spy Sergei] Skripal assassination attempt in the UK. So this a new step in the realization from Donald Trump and his administration that you need to confront Russian aggression.

Jeff, how would you describe today’s relationship between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Because a lot of people see these strikes as a sign that there is a confrontation, though there are those who would say it could be not systematic.

Jeff: It’s the difficulty with life, so often. Two things can be true at the time. We’ve seen the application of tough sanctions and now we’ve seen some toughness and military action in Syria and that’s true and that’s a different face for Donald Trump, that is a tough hand vis-a-vis Vladimir Putin. We’ve also seen the face of fondness, and affection and even admiration for the Russian President, for whatever reason. It seems a little bit complicated and bewildering to me. We also want to know, is that while the president is the commander-in-chief, and that’s vitally and centrally important, no administration is a monolith and we have now incoming a new national security advisor, we have incoming a new secretary of state. They will define everything, but they will endeavor to shape the view of the United States and the views of the president to some extent. It’s too early to tell whether this is a momentary interlude but something is changing, something is moving in some way.

In general, we see the Assad regime is stable and what’s happened within the last year, it looks like the Syrian regime has become more and more stable.

Ben: Yeah, I agree. We’ve wasted so much time. Since 2011 we said Assad must go, we set a red line on the use of chemical weapons and at the same time there’s been so little European and American reaction to the massacre in Syria. And I think probably in the United States people were wary of what happened in Iraq and Barack Obama was elected in 2008 on a program of withdrawal from the Middle East. Donald Trump was also elected on a very isolationist platform so I don’t think there was a lot of political appetite to get involved in Syria but we’ve wasted so much time and Iran got more involved, especially through its proxies like Hezbollah, Russia got directly involved in 2015 and managed to change the balance of force in favour of Assad. I think these strikes are important, I think they’re a message of credibility, especially after we said we’d intervene if chemical weapons were used. Are they going to change the situation in Syria? Of course, not. So the question now is, is this only one shot and we send a message or is this part of a broader strategy. I do think we should get more involved, I do think there is a lot we can do, including not militarily. We could isolate Assad financially, you still have some of his backers that have money in London and in Europe, we could go after this kind of funds. There is a lot we could do if we wanted to be more aggressive in prosecuting this conflict. But unfortunately, we’ve been shy in doing this so far.  

Jeff, how do we unite or separate foreign policy towards different countries. In Ukraine, in Eastern Europe, we look at US policy towards Russia, on what they are doing in this region and at the same time, there could be some negotiations with Iran or with Syria. So with that in mind, what should we look at?

Jeff: Russia has emerged as a pretty effective, global troublemaker. Vladimir Putin leads a country that has a relatively weak hand, but he plays it very strongly. We argue at times whether he is a master strategist or a tactical opportunist. The bigger issue is, he is a man with a vision. He wants Europe weak and divided, he wants spheres of influence and he wants to build Russia up by cutting America down. I would like us to have a comparable vision. We a Europe, whole and free, we want a Ukraine that’s sovereign, independent and democratic and chooses its own alliances and associations and I think we want a global multifaceted strategy vis-a-vis Russia that exacts a price for every instance where Russia aggresses and pushes back and sets the agenda wherever we can- Ukraine, other areas in Eastern Europe, Syria. You can go through a list of things but they should feel our agenda pushing at them. We don’t wish any ill will toward the Russian people but we don’t want a revanchist Russia, we want a normalized, cooperative Russia. And he doesn’t play that game. So I would like to see, whatever do we do in Syria, and Syria is so important, but in a broader context that pushes Russian aggression back on all fronts and modifies very bad behavior.

Ben, would you explain President Emmanuel Macron’s policy in this regard. He supported the strikes but we know there is a good relationship with President Trump, though while the French elections were on he presented a different idea- he was against populism, he was against what Trump sometimes represented. Tell us about the France - US alliance.

Ben: Macron was elected on almost the opposite platform of Trump. If you say that Donald Trump is in favor of protectionism and closedness, he was in favor of open society, free market, he is a big supporter of European integration but at the same time he is pragmatic in foreign policy and he does believe that you need to cooperate with allies and especially with Donald Trump. And I think the case he’s been trying to make to Donald Trump is that the transatlantic alliance is important. Donald Trump is someone who is very critical of Europeans because he believes Europeans should do more for their own defense and security, He’s always talking about burden sharing. And he’s not wrong, Europeans could invest more in their own security, border control and this is something that the French have long said. The French are very assertive militarily, they have troops in Africa, they’re very involved in the coalition against ISIS and Iraq and Syria. So this is something very paradoxical, on which Trump and Macron can agree on. Macron wants Europe to be more autonomous. Now when it comes to Syria, the French, including Macron’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, have a very tough position on Syria. I think there’s no trust between French leaders and Assad. The French have known Assad for a long time. They know how brutal his repression has been. Europeans have been the first victims of terrorism that spread out of Syria and that is a direct consequence of the repression of the Assad regime. So, I think the French have been at the forefront, having a more proactive reaction to the conflict in Syria and the red line incident in 2013 was a big, subjective division between the French and Americans because at the time Hollande wanted to strike Syrian chemical facilities and Obama was the one who changed his mind at the last minute. So I think there’s always been this strong position which Macron continued as president, and I think it’s very important as a show of Transatlantic unity that France, the United Kingdom, and the United States were together in these strikes.

Jeff, indeed, if we follow with the other countries, Theresa May in the UK supported these strikes as did Germany, which is usually very critical in this regard. So is this just this one instance of unity or could this lead to further relations, perhaps even not just in regard to Syria, but with regard to policy towards Russia?

Jeff: It’s a good sign. I don’t know if it’s sustainable. We have a moment now across the west where the watchword now is not unity, not internally, not across national boundaries and in an instance like this that the UK and France and the United States could cooperate and lead together is extremely important. That that Germany is supportive is extremely important, and I think we have to be mindful that we do have enemies, adversaries who are going to see this and they’re going to now work to chip away and weaken and divide. I mean Vladimir Putin and others will not stand idly. If we can find this as the moment for western leadership to remind ourselves that there is a transatlantic community of interest and values and we are united by far more than what separates us and put some political energy behind this around other projects too, maybe Ukraine for example, on assisting Ukraine. Right now, this is a photograph, and we’re in a movie and something came before and something will come after. The photograph we have is very heartening but it is still one shot, it is still one photograph, one frame.

We are in the region, Eastern Europe, that earlier could afford to not care about what’s happening in the Middle East and US-Syria relations. Yet today, with escalations there are concerns, with Russia showing enough strength and courage to do things that weren’t tolerated, but in the end were tolerated- annexation, etc. What does the escalation of events in the Middle East mean for this region?

Ben: First I would say, these are not isolated crises, this is part of a broader pattern of Russian aggression against the European or Transatlantic security that was built after the end of the Cold War. When you look at the behavior in Ukraine, when you look at the support of this massacres against civilians in Syria, this is also a consequence of the fact the United States and Europeans withdrew and they didn’t want to push back against this form of Russian aggression and Russia/Iranian in the Middle East. So I think if we start pushing back, if we start increasing the cost for intervention like we haven’t done in the last few years, I think it will start sending a signal, including in different places. As I said earlier, I think one of the reasons why Russia felt it could intervene without any pushback in Ukraine in 2014 is because it saw we didn’t follow our own red lines the year before in Syria. And I think now if we show that we’re serious and we’re ready to confront, we’re ready to go after the money that is still hidden in European capitals, that we’re ready to confront that after assassinations like the one that happened in Salisbury recently, and against these acts in Syria and Ukraine, it sends a signal that we’re back and we’re taking this seriously.

Jeff: What I appreciate about what Ben just said is that he’s talking about something that’s global and a strategy that’s multifaceted and pushing on different points. To your question, I think we should we very sober, Europeans, Americans, this a long game now. Number one, will Russia respond and retaliate? Absolutely. When, where, we don’t know, but Russia will not be idle. Is this a long game in terms of we need to allocate resources- military and financial and diplomatic and risk and sacrifice and endure setbacks? None of this is going to turn around in 2018, there will be no claiming victory in 2019. If we want to reorder this relationship, set the agenda and put an end to Russian revanchism, we’re talking about some years, but it’s been a suggested, a global approach with a multifaceted strategy.