Russia Has Backed Itself Into a Corner in Syria

These are all are major reversals of Trump’s declared positions, and a major blow to Moscow’s hopes for reshaping its relationship with Washington. The Kremlin now must find the right strategy to handle this problem. Fortunately, it has a few options it can put on the table next week, when Tillerson meets with Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Russia’s initial reaction to the chemical attack was a blanket defense of Assad’s air force: they bombed a rebel chemical weapons factory. Those same rebels then staged videos of children dying of exposure to sarin gas. It was predictably hapless. It was also obvious that Moscow was taken aback by the attack. Russia’s friends in Syria failed to give them the heads up.

In reacting to Trump’s missile strike on Assad’s air force, Russia leaned heavily on escalatory rhetoric, but its response had little substance. Moscow labeled the strike an act of aggression against a sovereign state, and suspended a military-to-military agreement on avoiding incidents in Syria’s crowded airspace. Overall, the reaction was self defeating. After all, Russia was warned in advance by the United States through this exact agreement.

It may be that Russia will increase the number of its air defense systems in Syria to make U.S. operations there more difficult, but this will not change much on the ground. Moscow appears to understand that this was a one-off attack to demonstrate the U.S.’s credibility in enforcing vital international norms and projecting an image of U.S. strength to other powers.

Russia is still sticking to its guns in its blanket defense of the Syrian regime, but this time around Assad may have overplayed his hand. He disrespected Putin by making him look helpless as a guarantor of the chemical weapons deal with Washington or worse, complicit with Assad in cheating on the agreement. He humiliated Putin before Trump by making Putin look weak. It is a slight the Russian leader has never taken lightly.

There is a sense among the Russian players that Assad was perhaps deliberately trying to scuttle the Astana peace process in which Moscow and Ankara invested much political capital. Assad and Tehran want full military victory, not a power sharing arrangement with defeated rebels. Assad and his Iranian backers never thought much about Astana and were clearly irritated by Russia and Turkey acting like the guys who run the show.