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How Will Syria Airstrike Affects US-Russia Relations?

Col. Robert E. Hamilton
Col. Robert E. Hamilton

US-Russian relations are under the spotlight following the US military strike against Syria on April 6 as the Kremlin denounced President Trump’s use of force. Majalla spoke with U.S. Army Colonel and Black Sea Fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute, Robert E. Hamilton, to discuss the questions that have been raised over the what these strikes mean for Russia and the future of US-Russian ties.

Vladimir Putin has responded to the missile strikes by condemning them as an “act of aggression” against a sovereign state on a “made-up pretext”. Russia has also suspended a cooperation deal that allowed US and Russian warplanes to stay out of each other’s way while on combat missions over Syrian airspace. What do you think Putin will do next?

Russia will probably step up its attacks on the moderate opposition groups fighting the Assad regime, as it has done in the past.  It will also probably strike hospitals and other civilian targets in opposition-held areas, something else it has done previously. This focus on striking moderate opposition groups and civilian infrastructure will limit its ability to target the violent extremist groups, such as ISIL, which operate in Syria.  This is the irony of the Russian assertion that all groups fighting the Assad regime are “terrorists”: when Russia attacks moderate, Western-backed opposition groups, the relative strength of the actual terrorist groups grows, and makes a sustainable solution to the conflict less likely.

Do you believe Russia was complicit in Assad’s gas attack?

Russia at a minimum failed to ensure Syria turned over its chemical weapons, as required by the 2013 agreement with the U.S.  If, as widely reported, Russian advisors were present at Shayrat Airfield prior to the strike and failed to notice the Syrian Air Force loading chemical munitions onto aircraft, these advisors were at best negligent.  As the chief international sponsor of the Syrian regime, Russia bears at least some of the responsibility for the war crimes it commits.

What do you believe Putin’s position will be if the U.S strikes do not succeed in deterring Assad from using chemical weapons?

Another use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime will probably be accompanied by another assertion from the regime and the Russian government that the strikes hit a “chemical weapons factory” in opposition-controlled territory.  Since no detached observer can take such assertions seriously, Russia will be forced at some point to rein in its ally to prevent a more devastating response from the U.S.

Has Washington struck a significant blow to Russian-American relations?

Russian-American relations were far from healthy prior to the Syrian chemical weapons attack, but the attack certainly made them worse.  The imperative now is to ensure neither side miscalculates or misperceives the intentions of the other side.  Despite the current rhetoric, the upcoming visit of U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson to Moscow should be a chance for some useful dialogue.

How big is the risk of direct confrontation between Russia and the US?

Both sides have a strong interest in preventing a direct military confrontation, in Syria and elsewhere.  During the Cold War, when the stakes were even higher than they are now, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were usually careful not to take tactical military actions that could lead to a direct confrontation and escalation of conflict.  Now would be a good time for both sides to exercise a similar level of restraint.  In this vein, ending the aggressive manoeuvres of Russian ships and aircraft toward their U.S. counterparts, which has been going on for several years, would be wise.  Eventually these manoeuvres are likely to cause an accident, which in the current climate has the potential to escalate into open military confrontation.

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