Trump drew a red line on Syria — but Russia looks set for massive retaliation this time

Sputnik/Mikhail Klementyev/KremlinRussian President Vladimir Putin inspecting warships in St. Petersburg in July.
  • President Donald Trump on Monday warned Syria, Russia, and Iran against “recklessly attacking” the last rebel stronghold in Syria, but Russia started airstrikes by the next morning.
  • Trump has ordered strikes on Syria in response to chemical-weapons use in the past.
  • But this time Russia looks to have forecast its use and made plans to fight back against a US strike.
  • The US can probably still attack Syria, and Russia wouldn’t do anything about it, but hope for Syria’s civilians has long gone.
  • Russia, Syria, and Iran seem close to ending the war on their terms.
  • The best the US can offer now is punitive strikes in response to chemical warfare, and thoughts and prayers for the families caught in the cross fire.

President Donald Trump on Monday warned Syrian President Bashar Assad, Russia, and Iran not to make a “grave humanitarian mistake” by “recklessly attacking” the last rebel stronghold in Syria’s seven-year war – but Russia started airstrikes by the next morning.

Trump’s warnings carried echoes of the past two Aprils, when the US acted with missile strikes against Assad in response to information that Syrian or Russian warplanes had used chemical weapons on civilians.

While chemical attacks credibly linked to Assad have become common in Syria, this time Russia seems intent to fend off further US military intervention with an impressive mass of military assets.

Russia has a small armada in the Mediterranean conducting military drills. In the air, Russia has long-range and naval aviation drilling to police the skies.

At the same time, Syrian and Iranian ground forces are preparing to attack Idlib, the last foothold of rebel fighters in the country. Russia, Syria, and Iran hope to end the war with a decisive victory over the rebels in the town. But if history is any indication, the fighting will drag on, and civilians are in danger.

Russian and Syrian jets have a reputation for carrying out airstrikes that bring many civilian casualties and look indiscriminate at best or like war crimes against hospitals and schools at worst.

But the US has largely turned a blind eye to civilian suffering in Syria. The international community gave a muted response to Assad’s lethal repression of pro-democracy protesters in 2011. By 2015, Russia and Iran had stepped in to back up Assad while killing off a significant share of the rebels considered moderate by the US.

Today’s Syrian conflict takes place mostly between Russian, Syrian, and Iranian forces and jihadist groups with some connection to Al Qaeda.

But Assad still doesn’t have the ground strength to beat the rebels outright, nor the political support to run them out of town after seven years of brutal attacks on his own people.

So out of those weaknesses, Syria and its Russian backers have repeatedly turned to the horrors of chemical warfare to terrify the Syrian government’s enemies.

And it’s there, with chemical weapons, that Trump has responded with missile strikes in the past.

Russia trying to scare off the US

Russia says that it has knowledge of an impending chemical attack in Idlib but that it will take the form of a US false-flag attack used to justify military intervention in Syria.

But Russia has made that claim before, and credible reports and inspections consistently link chemical weapons use to Russian or Syrian warplanes rather than anybody else.

After telegraphing this flashpoint, the Russian navy deployed in impressive numbers to the Mediterranean, where the US has twice fired on Syria.

By establishing dominance in the eastern Mediterranean, Russia may be trying to ward off another US attack, but this possibly mistakes the nature of US strikes on Syria.

The US has never made a full-on effort to depose Assad or turn the tide of the war. At this point, seven years into the war, such an effort wouldn’t make much sense.

Instead, neither US strike had much of an impact on Syria’s ability to conduct chemical warfare, much less its ability to bomb hospitals or other civilian targets.

Even with Russia’s ships in the Mediterranean, the US, with its impressive airpower in the region, could most likely land a few clean shots on some noncritical targets and again embarrass Syria and Russia, should Assad cross Trump’s line.

Would a humiliated Russia use its state-controlled media to simply try to spin the strikes as a failure, as it has before? Or would it use its unprecedented navy presence in the Mediterranean to attempt to strike back at the US?

Russia has a worse bark than bite in military retaliation, and has backed down over Syria before, so a full-on war between the world’s two biggest nuclear arsenals seems unlikely.

But Trump is right. Civilian suffering at the hands of Russians, Assad, and Iranians looks inevitable.

“The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy,” Trump tweeted on Monday. “Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!”

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