How the Trump administration acts in the aftermath of the chemical attack in Syria’s Douma is significant for relations between the U.S. and Russia. If mismanaged, the two sides risk a deterioration in their relationship worse than experienced during the Cold War.
Responding to the Douma attack with missiles, President Donald J. Trump has claimed “success.” It is too early for such celebration. In the coming days and months, we can expect an escalation of tensions between Washington and Moscow.
“American and Russian involvement is done on a day-to-day, or at best month-to-month, basis, because neither side has a well-thought-out program for the region,” historian Stephen Ambrose wrote in 1983. “They cannot have one, because they have no solution to the problem of national homelands. So each plays it by ear, with resulting policy shifts that often appear to be not only sudden but incomprehensible.”
“One looks in vain for consistency, except that both sides insist that the other has no right to intervene in the Middle East (except when war breaks out, when each demands that the other exert its influence to stop the fighting),” he added.
These words ring as true now as they did at the time of writing. Throughout the Cold War, the Middle East was used by the Great Powers as a theatre in which they would test the other’s nerve. From Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s delay in removing troops from Azerbaijan in 1946, viewed by many as a catalyst for the deadlock between the two and the beginning of the U.S. policy of containment, to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, following opposition from jihadists partly-backed by the United States.
In the four and half decades between these two flashpoints, Middle Eastern states endured a stagnation in the building of democratic structures because of U.S. and Russian involvement in the region.
In a typical style that will come to define the leadership of the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump took to Twitter to announce his intentions in response to the Douma attack. “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria,” he microblogged. “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” Russian officials, notably the country’s ambassador to Lebanon, have made it clear that they were not phased by this.
Following this chemical attack, it took one week for Trump to strike, aided by allies France and the U.K. Following this retaliation, direct conflict between the U.S. and Russia in Syria could be imminent, which would plummet relations between the two states to depths lower than experienced during the Cold War. This outcome would be disastrous for efforts to end the war in Syria adding to the suffering of its people and risking the lives of others in the region given the military capabilities of both.
Following a similar atrocity in Syria last April – also involving chemical weapons, and again attributed to the Assad regime – a limited, if symbolic, firing of Tomahawk missiles on an Assad airbase was ordered. A year on, the U.S. President’s response to an equally shocking chemical attack was expected to at least match that.
After the strikes last week, Trump said the U.S. was “prepared to sustain this response,” signaling that the situation could escalate further, which would increase the likelihood of a direct confrontation between Washington and Moscow on Syrian soil, in Syrian airspace, in nearby waters.
A long-term plan that is well-calculated is required from Trump to avoid the situation spiraling. Trump’s Twitter activity, so-called Tweet diplomacy, is a concerning hindrance to the type of leadership required at this moment.
Barely a month ago, in February, an airstrike claimed by the U.S. in the Syrian district of Deir Ezzor killed Russian mercenary fighters.
“No one wants to start a world war over a volunteer or a mercenary who wasn’t sent by the state and was hit by Americans,” a senior adviser to the Russian government on Syria said.
If a new U.S. strike were to hit Russian soldiers in Syria, it is unlikely the response would be the same. While “world war” might not be the immediate result, we may witness an escalation of grand proportions following the initial strike from the U.S., France, and U.K. if Russian assets were to be directly hit in Syria.
One need only look to Yemen, to see the consequences of two heavyweight powers dueling in the region. There, the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran has crippled the country to an extraordinary level. For the sake of the Syrian people, and those of the wider Middle East, the Trump administration’s response to the Douma attack must be well-informed, well-calculated and, above all, circumspect. How that looks following the retaliatory attacks on Damascus and near Homs will be complicated by the fact that the Russian ambassador to the U.S. has said that “there will be consequences” for this.
As well as his untrustworthy social media activity, the presence of John Bolton at Trump’s side — the President’s new National Security Adviser described in a recent issue of TIME magazine as “the bomb thrower in the White House” — may be another hindrance. His counsel on how to act at this moment will be critical.
In that same TIME article, the magazine’s national security correspondent W. J. Hennigan describes the feeling in the U.S. capital. “Fears abound in Washington that Trump is surrounding himself with people who will encourage the President’s most dangerous impulses.” Despite his experience, Bolton’s first test, just days into the position, could leave a lasting impression on the regional and global order.
Douma atrocity may be remembered in history as the spark that lit the fuse for direct confrontation between the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East. What that looks like in today’s world, and how it unfolds, will remain to be seen. The coordinated strike by the U.S., France, and the U.K., which was expected, will just be the beginning.
As it was during the Cold War – described by Ambrose in 1983 – U.S. and Russian activity in the region once again looks to be defined on a day-to-day, at best month-to-month basis.