- A Russian newspaper reported that President Donald Trump was planning to tip off Russia’s military before launching any attacks.
- The US tries hard to avoid killing Russians in Syria, despite the president’s recent hostile rhetoric toward Moscow.
- Russia is Syria’s ally but does not approve of all its behaviour.
- Moscow seems willing to let the US hit some Syrian targets as punishment for suspected chemical weapons use.
- Experts say it’s possible for the US to hit Syrian targets while dodging Russian troops and avoiding a major escalation.
President Donald Trump is said to be preparing to tip off the Russian military before launching any missile strike on Syria, so that Moscow can get its forces out of the way.
The Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on Wednesday that the US would give the Russian military a list of targets it intends to hit. The report said no high-value Russian assets like ships or planes were in the crosshairs.
The site also reports that Russia has spoken with US military leaders and with NATO (via Turkey) to avoid an escalating conflict as the West prepares to punish the Syrian government for a suspected chemical-weapons attack Saturday on a rebel-held town.
Coordination between Russia and the US, the world’s two greatest military and nuclear powers, would have positive implications for avoiding a massive escalation.
But it also raises questions of how significant a US strike can be without ruffling Russia’s feathers and of how committed Russia is to protecting the Syrian government from Western attacks.
Trump is planning a big strike, but not World War III
Trump did warn Russia before the US struck a Syrian air base in April of last year. He is thought to be exploring a much larger strike this time, as the strike in April 2017 didn’t meaningfully hamper Syria’s air operations. The air base the US hit with sea-based cruise missiles began launching aircraft again within 24 hours of the strike.
On Wednesday, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said “all options are on the table,” suggesting the US may strike Russian assets in Syria.
Experts told Business Insider, however, that such a confrontation was unlikely.
“The Americans take pains to avoid striking targets that are Russian regulars,” said Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at the geopolitical consulting firm Stratfor. He distinguished between official, enlisted soldiers – known as regulars – and military contractors, whom the US has engaged in the past.
Additionally, Bohl said Syria’s suspected chemical-weapons facilities were far enough away from Russian bases that they could be hit without upsetting Russian forces.
The idea of a coordinated, punitive strike on Syria runs counter to the narrative put forth by a Russian diplomat, who on Wednesday said Russia would shoot down any US missiles headed for Syria and potentially retaliate.
“I think that in the Syrian theatre, Russia is unlikely to interfere with the coming US operation or take military steps to prevent it or in retribution, despite their comments,” Cliff Kupchan, a former US State Department official who is now chairman of the Eurasia Group, told Business Insider.
“Russia’s not spoiling in any sense for a military conflict,” he continued, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “ruthlessly rational in weighting cost-benefits.”
Kupchan attributed Trump’s tough rhetoric, in which he has called out Putin by name over Saturday’s attack, to politics.
Russia may know Syria has gone too far
Russia has largely staked its credibility in the Middle East on saving Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government from collapse during its bloody seven-year civil war.
Kupchan and others, however, told Business Insider it was an open secret that Russia didn’t like Assad much.
Kupchan said the Kremlin may once have held influence over Assad, when there was a chance he could lose the ongoing civil war. But now that Assad’s forces are dominant, Kupchan says, Russian has little influence over Assad, who brings negative attention to the alliance through his attacks on civilians, including with chemical weapons.
Justin Bronk, an air-combat expert at the Royal United Services Institute, said chemical weapons killed fewer people than regular bombs but did so in a “particularly terrifying” way.
In Bronk’s view, Russia most likely pressures Syria not to use chemical weapons, on the grounds that they raise the risk of a US strike and aren’t needed militarily. But Assad uses them anyway, Bronk said, to “depopulate” rebel areas, as the fumes from the weapons seep into shelters where regular bombs can’t reach – and where civilians including children often take refuge.
“I think the Russians have limited control over Assad,” said Kupchan, who has met Putin several times. “That’s why they don’t like him so much.”
Unanimously, experts who spoke with Business Insider agreed the US and Russia had a heavy interest in avoiding war between the two of them. Deconfliction lines between the US and Russia help.
If the US can strike Syria without hitting Russian troops and equipment, it could be as successful politically as the one last April, which went virtually unpunished and won Trump wide praise for his foreign-policy boldness.
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