Are western strikes a message to Putin, not Assad?

Martin Jay
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“Half-baked” could be a phrase one might coin while analysing the western airstrikes on Assad’s weapon facilities, which are believed to be linked to the regime’s alleged chemical attacks.

But to put the strikes in context, they are at least more effective at delivering a clear message to Russia that if chemical weapons are used again in Syria, then there will be a coherent military reaction from the US and its allies.


The strikes will not change anything on the ground and not be a game changer in the dynamics of the Syria war. There is still no Syria policy from the US which leaves America’s two key allies in Europe – France and the UK – more confused.

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But the strikes do provide some political leverage to the US as, not only did Trump have the support of these two giants in Europe but the decision to make the attacks very precise, on military installations which are exclusively Assad’s, was a smart one – and one that Russia appreciates.

The attacks are largely symbolic and were not designed to change anything. Its timing also cannot be ignored in that it coincides with news of Trump’s own lawyer being investigated for campaign fraud payments – one which includes paying off a porn star to keep quiet about her allegations against the President.

We should also note that Russia informed all Syrian military workers at the sites targeted to leave in good time and that no hardware of the Syrian army was hit – only a weapons storage facility and a research centre.

The critical question now is what does Russia – not Syria – do, given that Putin is a man who cares about his public image and has made bold statements about retaliation

Martin Jay

Russia knows it’s a charade

What is important is that Putin has now been sent a message: “don’t go any further” in Syria with chemical weapons. Despite irate responses from Russian officials and ambassadors who were quick to react, my interpretation is that Russia will be pleased with the outcome of the strikes.

Russia was, after all, informed of the precise targets and Putin knows really what Trump is trying to do which is to compound his public image as one of a political nemesis of Obama – and to assert himself in Syria, without actually asserting himself at all. It was very much a charade and the Russians know it.

Crucially what is significant and should stand out is Trump’s support on chemical weapons from France and the UK.

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Without London and Paris he could not have gone ahead such strikes and many will wonder just how much of the Russian poisoning debacle involving a double agent who lived in the UK pushed Theresa May over a line, when just 48 hours before she was being reported as saying that UK would require more evidence before launching air strikes.

The critical question now is what does Russia – not Syria – do, given that Putin is a man who cares about his public image and has made bold statements about retaliation – specifically stating he would attack the sources of the strikes.

Putin is spoilt for choice if he wishes to retaliate and also send a message back. It’s unlikely he will do this on a grand scale though as he’s not eager to engage his forces with those of western allies.

Al Tanf base

But US military bases – one near Raqqa in North East Syria and a second pivoted on the axis of Jordan, Iraq and Syrian borders at Al Tanf – may well see an increase in local insurgency.

Given that Al Tanf was a base where rebels were trained both by US and UK soldiers and that in 2017 came under fire from Assad forces (supported by his allies), it might be a campaign which Assad will be more robustly supported in now.

Curiously the strikes drew the support from Turkey’s leader Recep Erdogan. Yet one option to really vex Trump and make a mockery of his Syria policy would be to support Turkey by weakening Kurdish positions held by the so-called SDF, which controls around 20 percent of the country.

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This is, after all, Trump’s Achilles Heel in Syria and it will be an attractive target for Russia. Putin can also hit back diplomatically though as buried in the quagmire of somnolent statements was a reference made by Defence Secretary James Mattis who called for the UN peace process in Vienna to be kick started.

Clearly Russia’s own peace processes, which galvanized Iran, Russia and Turkey, have irked Washington. Putin may well opt to breathe new life into them as a counterweight to any new UN momentum.
Martin Jay is a Beirut based journalist who in 2016 won the highest press award given by the United Nations for his reporting on Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In Beirut he has worked on a freelance basis for Al Jazeera, DW, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Mail on Line, The National and regularly appears on TV commentating on geopolitics. He can be followed at @MartinRJay.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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