A bizarre ‘everyone wins’ game in Syria
Despite all doomsday scenarios, in the end common sense prevailed. There are several reasons behind this.
First of all, Donald Trump, who terrified the world with a tweet saying “Get ready Russia, because nice and smart missiles will be coming” has been drawn to a more reasonable line by establishment figures in his own country and international players. The process to determine the Syrian response was basically an exercise to tame Trump, who undoubtedly has been acting like a loose cannon.
Reports in the U.S. media suggest that Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired general, played an important role in this process. At the end of the day, a one-off strike on a limited number of targets was launched. Apparently warnings that a wider and more powerful military move could have created uncontrollable chaos in Syria, which has been gripped by a civil war since 2011, paid off.
The operation was executed largely through cooperation and consultation with the U.K. and France, whereas Trump hit Syria alone around this time last year. Forging transatlantic cooperation with Europe is a new element in Trump’s policy.
It can also be argued that because of Russian President Vladimir Putin the scope of the response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was limited. According to the Washington Post, the response of Trump (who wanted to hit Syria harder) was rather measured because of the messages that Putin had sent out.
It may appear contradictory to conclude that one of the winners of this episode is al-Assad, but it may not be wrong to draw such a conclusion. The sanctions he faces following the allegations that he used chemicals were the mildest alternative among all military options on the table. What’s more, the U.S. response has in no way threatened the existence of al-Assad, who has managed to largely keep the regime’s infrastructure and military capabilities intact. His fight against opposition groups will thus continue unaffected.
The Syrian army, which recently finished the job in Eastern Ghouta – most likely with the help of chemical weapons - apparently on April 15 resumed operations. Syrian air forces and artillery have started to pound opposition-controlled towns and villages in rural areas of Homs in the north of the country.
It would not be a surprise move if jihadist groups in Homs are now transferred to Idlib, (which has been designated as a de-escalation zone and put under Turkey’s control after the Astana process) and to the Euphrates Shield areas (which are controlled by the Turkish military).
It is worrying that whenever al-Assad uses chemical weapons against civilians, the international system raises its voice and (mildly) punishes him. But when he launches attacks with fighter jets and helicopters, or drops barrel bombs on civilians, the international system mostly remains silent. This is the moral of the story: The key players of the international system believe that keeping a functioning state apparatus alive in Damascus is also beneficial for them. This undeclared consensus means keeping the al-Assad regime alive despite all the sins it has committed.
What will the consequences of the latest developments be for Turkey? It seems clear that the common interests and political calculations that have kept Turkey, Russia and Iran together through the Astana process will outweigh the issues causing problems between them.