As U.S. Tomahawk missiles soared over the Mediterranean toward Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase, speculation was already flying about how the attack would affect the thaw in U.S.-Russia relations anticipated since Donald Trump took office. Was this a first sign that America’s new president was willing to stand up to Putin?
Arguably the more critical factor in the equation is Russia. To understand the Kremlin’s response to the U.S. strike, and to the preceding chemical attack in Syria, it’s important to face some brutal truths about Russia in Syria.
The U.S. warned Russian forces about the coming strike because we knew they were there. We knew Russians were at Shayrat airbase since at least November 2015. This is why Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that this strike was “on the brink of combat clashes with Russia”: We were bombing a base from which he knew Russian forces guided operations.
In August 2015—well before the Kremlin announced its new Syrian campaign — Russia signed a comprehensive military agreement with Assad. This agreement gave Moscow virtual carte blanche in Syria, and gave Syria a status equivalent to occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia rather than to other sovereign nations where Russian forces are housed.
Russian commanders coordinate the military strategy in Syria, and have been critical to reversing the course of the war against Assad. Russian forces coordinate all aspects of Syrian air power and airstrikes. They reinforced the infrastructure of Shayrat airbase — which supposedly had its chemical stockpiles removed in 2013. There is no chance that, in the course of reconstructing elements of the base, they were not made aware that there were chemical munitions present.
According to some reports, intelligence sources have confirmed that Russian personnel were present at the base when the chemical munitions were being loaded onto Syrian fighters. Russian air assets may have been over the site of the chemical attack when it occurred, and a Russian drone scouted a hospital treating the victims of the sarin attack just before it was bombed—possibly to destroy evidence of the attack. Bombing hospitals has been part of the strategy of war in Syria.
All this means that Russian forces likely knew about the sarin attack—the same way they have known about all the Syrian barrel bombs and chlorine attacks, and have been integrally involved in the planning and execution of the strategy of which those attacks were a part. They are fully integrated into the command hierarchy of the Syrian campaign.
In Ukraine, for too long, we played along with the Russian kabuki of “little green men” and “separatist forces” when it was clear there were Russian men and materiel on the front lines.
We must now confront a similar truth — and the consequences—in Syria. There is effectively no Syrian army anymore. There are Russian commanders and Iranian and Hezbollah ground forces. Russia has far greater technological capabilities, and also has the expertise in precision munitions. So fill in the blanks. Syria is a Russian war.
Why would Assad or Putin take such a risk with this chemical attack, or any of the others? The Kremlin and its generals understand the usefulness of fear, and of massive demographic engineering and the weaponization of migration, and of the destabilization of the region to achieve specific gains. Remember: Chaos is often a Kremlin strategy.
Russian forces were warned of the coming retaliatory strike. Their A2AD air defense systems could have defended Shayrat against missile strikes. They didn’t.
At that moment, officials in the Kremlin had an opportunity, but they also made a choice. They could have thrown Assad under the bus—said they were unaware of the attack, condemned it, or at least said that it must be investigated impartially, etc.
They didn’t. Instead, the Kremlin made up stories about how Assad was not responsible, launching conspiracies about rebel chemical factories and “provocations.” In fact, they went further, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs implying that every chemical attack during the Syrian war had been staged to tar Assad.
So the Kremlin has made its choice. By covering for Assad and blaming America, Russian leaders deserve no further opportunities to deny their sins. And we should stop doing it for them.
The truth is: Russia is complicit in the use of sarin gas against civilians in Syria. But getting caught, embarrassing as it might be, is useful to the Kremlin, too. Putin understands that Trump’s missile attack could be the narrative pivot he needs to escape the consequences of his actions.
Already, hopes for a reset were fading in Moscow. The Kremlin has become increasingly concerned that Trump is constrained by investigations and the public’s anti-Russian sentiments, and that their efforts to cultivate a friendly face in the White House will yield nothing. That means they have two options: Force their opponent to work harder for the deal, or else return to the narrative of America as “the main opponent.”
Either is a win for Putin, and both were achieved by allowing the strike.
The Kremlin reality-distortion machine is at full churn, spewing out outrage and diversion: the U.S. bombed Syria to distract from civilian casualties in Iraq; it was really to send a message to North Korea; Trump was trying to reverse declining approval ratings; the U.S. is supporting ISIS; the sarin attack was a “provocation” meant to force President Trump back from his softening position on the longevity of Assad’s reign.
But this time, the churn can’t drown out the truth. Bombing Syria re-established that the U.S. is still a player in the Middle East. It was an act of American strength.
But a one-off bombing of one of Assad’s bases did not establish a position of American strength. Putin moves into vacuums — physically and ideologically — and the U.S. left too many during the Obama years. Without a policy on Russia — not on Syria or Ukraine, but on Russia itself, and not to react to Putin, but to shape what comes next — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is still heading to Moscow to negotiate from a position of weakness.
As I wrote in January, Trump has the tools and characteristics to be able to stand against Putin’s global imperialist insurgency, including in the Middle East, should he choose to do so.
Strength requires strategy. And it’s time that we have one again on Russia, and for all the many wars the Kremlin is waging against us and our interests. But this requires seeing through the Kremlin’s fairytales and accepting the truth of their actions.