The good news is that neither Washington nor Moscow sees the advantage of a showdown on Syria. The bad news is that the confrontation could still escalate.
The pundits keep telling us that neither Russia nor America wants to go to war over Syria. But they also keep warning of some sort of accidental escalation that might nonetheless bring the two sides to blows. Given that we are talking about war between heavily nuclear-armed powers led by unpredictable risk-takers, this caveat is hardly comforting. So, how likely is war between Russia and America?
The answer depends on perceptions in Moscow and Washington. If the two sides understand each other’s signalling, they will avoid inadvertent escalation. If they don’t … well, that wouldn’t be good.
The view from Washington
The perception of Russia in Washington has certainly changed in the last year, since the last time the US threatened airstrikes against the Assad regime. President Donald Trump, who had never directly criticised Russian President Vladimir Putin before, excoriated him for backing the “Gas Killing Animal” Assad. This pointed critique of Putin met with Russian military muscle flexing and warnings from Putin about a potential “hot” conflict.
The presidents’ battle of machismo raises the temperature at an already tense moment in US-Russia relations. Washington policymakers understand that if US-led strikes result in Russian casualties, this would heighten tensions and perhaps force the Russians to respond.
But they also see brakes on this trajectory. Even if the Americans blame Moscow for enabling the Assad regime’s worst behaviour, they seek to avoid clashing with Russia and to reduce the risk to Russian personnel through military deconfliction or other messaging. Indeed, Trump’s odd, chest-thumping tweet about a forthcoming missile attack could be read as a warning to get out of the way.
The Trump administration sees Iran, not Russia, as the paramount security threat in the Middle East. It assumes that Russia is relatively flexible on the outcome in Syria and shares Washington’s uneasiness about Iran’s growing influence there. The US perception remains that Russia is the least bad alternative among the regime’s allies and has sufficient leverage to influence the regime, should it choose to do so.
A US president eager to withdraw troops from Syria but intent on preventing Iran from gaining ground needs to engage with Russia on Syria’s future. Trump’s problem is that, given his previous rhetoric on the subject, the Assad regime’s brutal use of chemical weapons demands a response from the United States. He can hope to use this moment and the regime’s transgression to nudge Russia toward more constructive coordination. At the very least, Trump hopes, as he did last year, to demonstrate a willingness to punish Assad without running afoul of the Russians.
The view from Moscow
A year ago, Moscow was remarkably restrained when the newly formed Trump administration attacked a Syrian airbase. But a lot has changed in Moscow since then. This week, there has been a feeling of worry and resignation among the city’s policy community. Russian experts have been talking about the potential for a “kinetic” clash with the US in Syria, while Russian journalists have repeatedly asked them about the possibility of a Third World War.
These narratives are excessively apocalyptic, of course, but there is reason to worry. Russian experts saw last year’s military strike as a one-off act of punishment by a freshly elected president for a one-off chemical attack. This time around, the airstrikes will come amid several other developments that will tempt Moscow to see US action in Syria as a part of a broader coordinated Western effort against Russia.
Last year, Moscow viewed the Trump administration as a potential friend and ally. Putin might still have a soft spot for Trump – whom he never personally criticises – but, overall, the Kremlin now sees the US-Russia relationship as confrontational.
More broadly, the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury and the massive expulsions of Russian diplomats that followed have shaken relations with the West. The perception of the Skripal case in Moscow is highly unusual. After previous Russia-sponsored crimes – such as the downing of MH17 –Russia’s media and diplomats busied themselves muddying the narrative and inventing alternative theories. But experts always quietly acknowledged Russia’s responsibility. This time, things are different. Many do indeed believe that what happened in Salisbury was a false-flag operation designed to discredit Russia. The ones who do not buy this theory simply lack an alternative explanation.
These developments, and Moscow’s interpretation of them, will have repercussions in Syria. To the West, the Skripal case and the chemical attack in Syria are different, unlinked events. But, for a conspiracy theorist, they are connected: the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already implied that the Skripal assassination attempt was a false-flag operation designed to discredit Russia’s policy in Syria. Just one month ago, Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov predicted that a similar Western operation in Syria would soon serve as a pretext for a US attack on Damascus. He warned that Russia would retaliate against “both the missiles and their delivery vehicles”.
Some in Moscow see in all of this a broad-based Western plot against Russia, emanating if not from Trump himself then from his hawkish advisers and their “deep state” allies. If the Kremlin shares this view, then it is bound to intensify its defence of its unruly vassal Bashar Assad, despite all the frustration his behaviour undoubtedly causes in Moscow. As in Washington, advisers will tell the president that, unless the opponent is told that it cannot get away with such behaviour, this behaviour will never stop. But if the Kremlin knows that Russia has erred and Assad has misbehaved, then it is likely to take a more restrained view.
Thus, the mood in Moscow is one of worry and frustration, but not exactly bellicosity. “Things have piled up and created an impression that whatever we try with the West, it is all in vain”, said one expert. This frustration has not created much appetite for a direct military clash in Syria, but the strain is starting to show.
Battle of misperceptions
The Trump administration believes that Moscow understands its desire to work with Russia on Syria, despite its anger over Russian meddling in the US election and the anti-Russia fervour sweeping Washington. Moscow, however, sees a growing Western plot, complete with Russian-style dirty tricks, to thwart Russia’s renewed effort at global influence – and it may well assume that the West is now challenging Russia’s role in Syria, too.
The good news is that neither sides see an advantage in fighting the other. The bad news is that the US thinks it can attack Syria again without affecting the wider relationship with Russia or threatening the Russians’ broader geopolitical interests. But Russia sees that its other interests are already under threat, and may fail to see Syria as a separate issue.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.