Heading to Moscow on April 11, the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called out Russia, saying "it was unclear whether Russia had failed to take seriously its obligation to rid Syria of chemical weapons, or had merely been incompetent.” "But the distinction doesn’t much matter to the dead,” he stated, alluding to 89 civilians, out of whom 33 were children, that have died in April 4 deadly chemical attack on the small town of Khan Sheikhun, near the city of Idlib by the Syrian governmental forces.
Those civilian deaths brought about the most dramatic shift in the foreign policy of the new US administration. In a constructive and clear-cut offer, Tillerson offered Russia to give up its support for Assad and play a role in salvaging Syria and its people. It remains to be seen how deep and sustained this commitment would prove.
Crossing the red line
On April 4, Assad’s air force reportedly dropped chemical bombs on the small town of Khan Sheikhun, near the city of Idlib, killing civilians and injuring hundreds more. In a surprise move, the US President Donald Trump ordered, on April 6, a targeted military strike on the Shayrat Airfield from which the Syrian air attack was launched. This is the most decisive move by the US throughout the six-year-old Syrian quagmire. It may yet become the starting point of the fundamental change in the degree and character of the US and Western involvement in Syria.
A small Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun had been bombed at around 6:35am on April 4. In the immediate aftermath the reports came in of the civilian casualties suffocating in the streets due to exposure to the chemical agents, children were among the victims. Later in the afternoon the very hospital trying to cope with the emergency was also targeted in an airstrike - many observers say in an operation to cover up the preceding chemical attack.
The horrible images of the attack spread virally and incited global outrage. They also brought to the fore the long-lasting questions about Assad’s impunity for his crimes. The USA, France and Great Britain called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. They put forward a draft resolution calling for a mandatory international investigation. Russia obstructed the draft and the vote was never held.
In the immediate aftermath Russian officials have argued that the chemical exposure came from the stockpiles held by the opposition that were detonated by the conventional strike of the Syrian government forces. But both military experts and the observers in the field have forcefully countered that version.
With more analysis leaning towards Assad's deliberate attack in the evening of April 6, President Trump ordered a targeted military strike on the Syrian airbase, from which it was believed the air raid had taken place.
The strike was carried out from the US navy destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross, firing 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs), which in the words of Secretary of Defense had "resulted in the damage or destruction of fuel and ammunition sites, air defense capabilities and 20% of Syria's operational aircraft". Russia and Iran condemned the move, calling it a violation of Syria’s sovereignty and threatening with response in any future breach of "red lines.”
Moscow stepping into the void
In 2016, the ongoing Presidential campaign in the US, the growth of anti-establishment and far right movements in Europe resulted in the US and European military indecisiveness on Syria. Russia has stepped into the void to establish itself as the most decisive foreign actor in the Syrian war theater, proving a crucial military and political support to Bashar Al Assad’s embattled regime.
With Russia’s air support, opposition’s main city - besieged Aleppo - fell in December, with opposition fighters retreating to Syria’s northern Idlib province. The fall of Aleppo has solidified Assad’s position. His unrestrained military campaign undermined any ongoing Western efforts to solve the problem diplomatically.
Russia has emerged at the head of the negotiating table, holding both the military and diplomatic initiative in the Syrian war. The most important regional actors, Iran and Turkey, met under Russia’s aegis in Astana for the cease-fire talks in February.
Russia’s diplomatic solo in Astana did, however, fail to deliver a credible cease-fire. This dented Russia’s all-powerful image somewhat, but also made it evident that the Western engagement is important for finding any credible solution to the conflict.
US in search of a strategy
Since the targeted strike, the US Trump administration has been struggling to form a coherent further strategy on Syria with details being deferred for the Secretary Tillerson’s Moscow visit on April 11-12. It is widely believed that while in Moscow Secretary Tillerson, backed by the G7 countries, will demand withdrawal of Russia’s support for Assad.
The Trump administration’s U-turn on Syria is dramatic. During the campaign as well as in its first months in office, the Trump administration has shifted the US priorities in Syria resolutely in favor of defeating ISIS, while stressing that the removal of Assad was not a US priority. This line, coupled with President Trump’s rumored sympathies towards Russia’s Putin, might have emboldened both Assad and the Russia’s Syria decision-makers. The decision to hit the opposition hard in Idlib – whether taken out of recklessness or as a revenge - had backfired for both Russia and Assad.
The US targeted and "measured strike” against airfields in Syria is justifiable on many counts. First and foremost, the Assad regime had already been implicated in the use of chemical weapons on number of occasions throughout the atrocious Syrian civil war.
In 2013, after a global uproar a deal was reached for Syria to destroy all of its chemical weapons – with Russia as a guarantor. Syria became a full member of the Chemical Weapons Convention on October 14, 2013, prohibiting it from producing, stockpiling, or using chemical weapons. In June 2014 the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed Syria’s compliance with the Convention. However, later on, the joint OPCW-UN investigative panel concluded on August 24, 2016 that from 2014-2015 the Syrian government was responsible for the use of chlorine gas on at least three occasions while also finding that ISIS had also used a mustard gas. Russia along with China has vetoed a punitive resolution against Syria, leaving the issue of Assad’s incompliance with the International law unaddressed.
After April 4 attack Russia’s role comes increasingly under spotlight. As Tillerson heads to Moscow, it is unclear whether the Trump administration can find a common ground with Russia to end the crisis in Syria.
At this point the US administration has made it clear that it no longer sees Assad as a part of any solution to the crisis in Syria. But with the policy U-turn so sudden, it remains to be seen whether the US will work actively towards conditioning the political transition in Syria in accordance with the Geneva agreement and the UN Security Council resolution 2254.
The US president’s decision to play a decisive role in the face of atrocities in Idlib had been a single most important move against longstanding impunity of the Assad regime. It is now imperative that the USA, along with the European Union takes up the diplomatic initiative and works towards implementing the Geneva agreement on Syria, precluding any moves from Russia that might contribute to closing the conflict to the outside eye and leaving it in an indefinite "frozen” impasse, as Russia has done consistently when handling conflicts in its immediate neighborhood.
Dr. Eka Akobia is the Dean of the School of Governance at the Caucasus University. In 2012-2016 she was the Director for the Department of Africa and Asia at the Foreign Ministry of Georgia.