By Yury Barmin
23 April 2018
Recent US-led coalition strikes in response to an alleged chemical attack in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, had Western analysts hoping for a tectonic change in Washington's policy on Syria. Russia, on the other hand, was fearful that its previously unchecked influence in the battlefield was coming to an end.
The results of the joint US, UK and French strikes on three suspected chemical facilities were ultimately underwhelming and are unlikely to serve as a deterrent against the further use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad's regime.
That is not to say that US President Donald Trump blinked in the face of possible escalation with Russia. Just two months earlier, US warplanes attacked a pro-regime force in Deir Az-Zor, reportedly killing dozens of Russian mercenaries; the Russian government took days to acknowledge the attack and did not launch a military response.
While the April 14 strikes had limited effect on the ground, they did symbolically challenge the dominance of the Russian military in Syria. What is more important, they succeeded in transforming the conflict into a struggle between great powers. As rhetorical tension escalated before the strikes, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres himself pointed that out: "The Cold War is back with a vengeance," he said.
Events of the past few months, indeed, have shown that the conflict in Syria has gradually assumed the character of a Cold War-style struggle. Just like during the Cold War of the 20th century, today, positive diplomatic engagement between Russia and the US has been reduced to communication and coordination to avoid direct military confrontation. In this sense, instead of political diplomacy leading the way in bilateral relations, it is the US and Russian militaries that have now taken charge and are in constant contact, coordinating de-confliction and de-escalation.
Militaries Dominating Diplomacy
That the April 14 Western strikes on Syria did not result in a decisive military operation by the US and its partners against Assad's military facilities, and possibly Iranian-backed forces, was not surprising if one was to look at the conflict from a Cold-War perspective.
In the days of the Cold War, tensions would build up very quickly, but would also drop unexpectedly. The Cuban Missile Crisis - the closest that the US and the Soviet Union came to an all-out nuclear war - is a case in point. Within 13 days, rhetoric escalated to threats of pre-emptive attacks, as both sides put their armies on high alert, only to quickly negotiate a de-escalation agreement to remove threatening missile installations. At least on two occasions, civilian and military leadership on both sides chose not to respond to provocations, eventually ending the episode with just one victim - the pilot of a US U-2 reconnaissance plane shot down by the Cubans.
In Syria today, the military brass of both countries treads carefully hoping to let off steam, despite Washington's promises of using "nice and new and smart missiles" and Moscow's threats of a swift retaliation. The heated political rhetoric coming from both capitals that all too often slides into blunt threats does not match the reality of how the military establishment handles the crisis.
What we are witnessing in Syria is a disconnect between the political and military dimensions of policymaking, as sabre-rattling has become a preferred mode of communication for diplomats, while the military has become the voice of pragmatism and sanity. Political hostility on both sides has resulted in an enormous vacuum in US-Russia relations which has been filled partially by their militaries. They have seemingly maintained the only functioning platform for dialogue to avoid confrontation.
A New Front for Western Confrontation With Russia
What makes the current crisis more explosive than any previous episode of diplomatic squabbles over Syria is the fact that it is now firmly linked to diplomatic confrontation between Russia and the West on other fronts.
This is evident in the decision of both France and the UK to participate in the US strikes on the Syrian regime. Despite what British PM Theresa May and French PM Emmanuel Macron said about the military strikes aiming to send a strong message against the use of chemical weapons, this is not why Paris and London joined Washington in its operation.
Recently, diplomatic tensions between the UK and Russia escalated after the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury. The expulsion of diplomats on both sides came as the climax of years of escalating diplomatic confrontation between the two countries.
French-Russian relations have also soured in recent years. Macron has not shied away from demonstrating just how upset he was by what he perceived as Russian meddling in the 2017 French elections that brought him to power. During Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Paris, just days after the vote, Macron blasted Russian media for their reporting on France and called it "propaganda".
From the Kremlin's perspective, France and the UK are becoming more involved in Syria so that they channel their confrontation with Russia away from home. The idea is to have the pressure building up along the NATO's north-eastern border released elsewhere, in the relative "safety" of what is wrongly perceived in Europe as a faraway conflict. For Moscow, its struggle against the growing influence of NATO at its borders was at the heart of its concerns during the Cold War.
Syria as a Cold War-era Germany
Moscow and Washington have come to realise that Syria is the most convenient place to make a point to each other. Neither Trump, nor Putin wants a military showdown in Syria, but with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) almost entirely defeated in Syria, the anti-terror campaign no longer produces the same political benefits as it used to just a year ago.
Moscow and Washington have lived off of the PR effects of their anti-terrorist campaigns in Syria long enough to understand that a lengthy process of political settlement of this conflict would not be as glorious as declarations of victory over ISIL.
With anti-terror rhetoric exhausted, Syria has become hostage to a great power rivalry. Russia and the US will continue to seek maximisation of the returns on their investments in the Syrian crisis and will continue to play off their diplomatic confrontations on its territory.
Therefore, it is not inconceivable that Syria will take the role of Cold War-era Germany. It is likely that the two great powers, along with their allies, will use the country to set up new rules of the Cold War game and new red lines. The East-West-Germany divide devised by Moscow and Washington after World War II may get a whole new meaning in the Syrian context.
In this sense, the global diplomatic confrontation between Russia and the US will not bode well for Syria and its people. Just as the Cold War propagated proxy wars across the world, ignoring self-determination rights of various peoples, so is this diplomatic conflict likely to deny the Syrian people the right to choose their own destiny.
Yury Barmin is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council covering the Middle East and North Africa.