Participants of the G7 summit in Lucca, Italy, discussed new sanctions against Russia over its support for Bashar al-Assad but could not reach agreement. And it is clear why, as recent events in Syria raise questions that have not yet been answered.

Opinions differ regarding the tragedy that occurred on 4 April in Khan Shaykhun in Syria’s Idlib Governorate, where over 70 people (according to some data – over 100 people) were killed by a toxic gas. According to the US and their allies, these people were killed by a chemical attack carried out by Syrian Forces. Russia maintains that Islamic extremists are to blame, as they stored and even produced toxic gas in the vicinity.  Both accounts boast some supporting evidence and weaknesses.

The first (western) account may be doubtful since a chemical attack would not benefit Bashar al-Assad politically and would bring only dubious military benefit. It compromises Assad’s reputation which is already undermined in the international community.  The US had recently started to express greater tolerance of his regime and stressed that America’s key enemy was and is “Islamic State”.

For the record, the chemical attack also compromises Russia – Assad’s main ally, despite their periodic differences of opinion.

At the same time, Moscow’s explanations about Islamists storing toxic weapons in Khan Shaykhun and even running some production units to manufacture land mines containing toxic chemicals, which then exploded in Assad’s bombing of the territory are less than entirely convincing. It’s hard to believe that the chemical weapons were aimed at “Islamic State” for the war in Iraq.

As both versions seem doubtful, other ideas come to the fore. It is likely that the initiative to inflict the strike on Khan Shaykhun came from a certain military group inside Assad’s regime, a “war party”, who are not interested in any political resolution of the conflict as that would weaken their position. Nor can we entirely exclude the interference of Tehran. They are involved in the Syrian conflict as part of efforts to expand their influence in the region and beyond.

Just hours after the incident in Khan Shaykhun took place, the idea “punishing” Bashar al-Assad immediately emerged. It was the United States who developed this approach, and they are the most involved party in the Syrian war. As a result, on the night of 7 April, American forces conducted a strike on the Shayrat military airbase in Syria. This airbase was used for the attack on Khan Shaykhun.   Russia declared these actions to be an act of aggression against Syria.

What made President Trump make this decision?

It seems, it was primarily based on domestic purposes. When the President gave the order to launch tomahawk missiles at al-Shayrat military airfield, he demonstrated that he was a “powerful man” who is capable of taking action; by the way, this helped boost his approval rating among American citizens. (According to a GALLUP survey, after the strike on Syria President Trump’s rating rose from 35% to 43%, and even more according to other surveys). Also people from Trump’s team, including family members, also insisted that action must be taken.

This was something President Trump needed to do in order to assert his authority, and we can understand the American president from psychological point of view.

However, should we consider the strike on the Syrian airbase as the beginning of a new tougher strategy by the USA? My guess would be – no. President Trump’s decision was reactive, and I would not expect similar military actions in the future. The strike against al-Shayrat was a one-off. And those involved are unlikely to use chemical weapons in Syria again. In any case, Assad must do his best to avoid any incidents similar to Khan Shaykhun. America’s European partners, who support military action, are not going to take part in anything similar.

Russia appeared to be in a difficult situation and has incurred some reputational losses. If it is in fact Assad who is to blame for the tragedy in Khan Shaykhun, it means the country’s ally is a criminal who uses inhuman actions to fight the war. Russia is staunchly against such actions. Consequently, under this scenario, Assad acted contrary to Russia’s opinion and therefore Russia’s influence on him is limited.

One more thing: Russia was warned by the Americans two hours before the strike on al-Shayrat airbase. But Russia could not prevent it or protect the Syrian base by using the C-300 antimissile system located in the area. Had that been used, experts believe, there would have been less damage to base. Perhaps, Moscow decided not to get involved in direct confrontation with the United States. This could be seen both as Russia’s weakness and as a reasonable and circumspect position.

More unpleasant news for Moscow, although not unexpected, was the position of Turkey, which offered its full support to the United States. This has been painful for Kremlin as relations between Ankara and Moscow have significantly improved in recent months, and Turkey has become one of the key sides in the Russia-Turkey-Iran triangle, viewed in Russia as a potential basis for resolving the Syrian conflict. But now it has become clear that the triangle was quite fragile and is most likely now entirely broken.

Moscow will have to respect the position of Turkey’s President Erdogan and at least not threaten Turkey with cancellation of tourist charter flights over the “volatile situation” in the country. A more nuanced approach is required, especially following recent successful contacts between the two countries’ presidents. If Moscow curtails bi-lateral relations again, it will lose an important partner in the Middle East and “give” Turkey away to the West.

The paradox is that Moscow in a way benefited from the current critical situation despite the political losses mentioned above. There appeared not to be any general consensus regarding who is to blame for the tragedy in Khan Shaykhun and what is to be done with Bashar al-Assad. There is no ultimatum for Russia. And there will be no new wave of anti-Russian sanctions. However, a UN committee has been established to investigate the chemical weapons incident and it will take some time. They emphasized once again that it will be impossible to resolve the Syrian conflict without Russia, and that they should not only impose sanctions on Moscow but also work to persuade it.

In the meantime, Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, visited Moscow. Just before his visit, he made a number of different comments in Washington and in Moscow. On the one hand, this was a kind of propaganda pressure and mutual tension was growing. On the other hand, the both parties seemed to be ready for compromise and hoped to come to an understanding.

Before that, Tillerson had warned Russia that it should stop supporting Assad (which is impossible as it could disavow all its policies and Russia risks “losing face”). However, no ultimatum was heard at the meeting. Tillerson repeated that Russia and the US have common interests. He emphasized that an open dialogue is needed.  And Lavrov had no objections to that. Therefore, there was no break in relations (although it had been predicted by some “experts”). We can say the meeting between Lavrov and Tillerson ended “in a tie,” but it seems that Russia still has the advantage.

Moreover, after their talks, they went on to a meeting with Vladimir Putin. So, life goes on, and there is an ever greater likelihood that the two countries’ leaders will meet.

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Alexey Malashenko
Prof. Malashenko graduated from Institute of Asian and African Countries, Moscow State University. He is Ph.D. in History, one of the leading experts of Islam, orientalist, political scientist. Prof. Malashenko is the author and editor of about twenty books (in Russian, English, French, and Arabic) and more than 200 articles. The latest are: • The Fight for Influence. Russia in Central Asia. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Washington DC, 2013 • Policy in Russia and Russia in Policy. Moscow, 2013 • My Islam. (Monograph) Publishing house ROSSPEN, Moscow 2010 • L'islam en Russie (Monograph). Les editions Keruss. Canada 2009. Pp. 1-280 • Ramzan Kadirov, a Russian Politician of the «Caucasian Nationality” (Monograph), Publishing House ROSSPEN. Moscow 2009 Before joining the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute he was the Chair of the “Religion, Society, and Security” Program at Carnegie Moscow Center, Professor at Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE), Professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Head of the Islamic Department at Institute of Oriental Studies RAN (Russian Academy of Sciences).