President Trump laid down the gauntlet Wednesday morning in a blunt tweet directed at Russia: "Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!" The president then added: "Our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War." He was evidently reacting to a warning by Alexander Zasypkin, Russia's ambassador to Lebanon, that Russian President Vladimir Putin would order the downing of any American missiles fired at Syrian territory and take military action against "even the sources from which the missiles were fired."
A Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman wasted no time in responding to President Trump's Wednesday morning twitter threat: “Smart missiles should fly towards terrorists, not a legal government."
Add to this saber rattling the fiery accusations exchanged between U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia at the United Nations Security Council earlier this week and it does seem like we are going back to the future.
However, considering how close the world came to an all-out nuclear war during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, it is an exaggeration to say that our relationship with Russia (then the Soviet Union) has never been worse. Nevertheless, with so many strategic geopolitical cross-currents in Syria and an established Russian military presence committed to supporting the Assad regime, events could spin out of control and turn President Trump's hyperbole into a grim reality. The new "cold war" is on the verge of turning very hot, potentially involving Russia and the U.S. with its Western European allies in a direct military confrontation, as well as sweeping Iran, Israel and other Middle East regional powers into the fight.
Whether Russia is bluffing will depend in part on whether any Russian personnel are killed or injured by U.S.-led airstrikes or whether there is any significant damage to Russian military facilities or assets.
Even if Russia does not retaliate directly against the United States right away, Russia may be planning to work together with Iran to target Israel in the event of U.S-led air strikes against Syria. According to a report from Debkafile, Alexander Lavrentiev, the special Russian emissary on Syria, proposed such military cooperation during a visit to Tehran. The Iranian regime has vowed revenge for Israel's air strike earlier this week on Syria's T4 base near Homs, which killed several members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard. Both Iran and Russia are convinced that Israel was working in concert with the United States to inflict the first blow in the U.S.-led offensive. They see themselves as amongst possible targets in the rounds of attacks to follow.
President Trump is unbowed by Russia’s threats. Preparations for a U.S.-led attack, in coordination with France and the United Kingdom, are underway. The U.S. has already issued warnings for civilian aircraft to avoid Syrian airspace. U.S.-led coalition warplanes have reportedly flown over the Iraqi border. The USS Donald Cook carrier, loaded with tomahawk missiles, has been moving towards Syria. F22 Raptor fighter jets, stationed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, are available to conduct air strikes. The United Kingdom has RAF Tornado fighter jets stationed nearby in Cyprus on standby.
According to Debkafile's Washington sources, any U.S.-led strikes in Syria will not be a one-off action like last year's missile strikes on a Syrian airbase in response to the Syrian regime's chemical attack that killed 80 civilians. This time, President Trump is reportedly looking at an operation that could last several days and involve multiple targets. This may explain the reported departure of the nuclear-powered USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier from its U.S. port on Wednesday, headed towards the Mediterranean where it will arrive next week.
Russia has not been sitting back. A French navy ship equipped with cruise missiles capable of being used against the Assad regime was buzzed by a low-flying Russian warplane in the eastern Mediterranean several days ago. Russia has also been busy jamming U.S. drones flying over Syria. This could complicate U.S. military operations in Syria, although Russia’s jamming has not yet adversely impacted the Predator and Reaper drones used in combat. A Pentagon spokesperson claimed that the U.S. military “maintains sufficient countermeasures and protections to ensure the safety of our manned and unmanned aircraft, our forces and the missions they support."
There are reasonable arguments for and against a full-scale air attack against Syria in response to the latest alleged chemical attack. A major reason to hold back is the law of unintended consequences, including a wider all-out war involving Russia, Iran and Iran's terrorist proxy Hezbollah on one side against the United States, its coalition partners and Israel. Once the furies of war are unleashed there may be no turning back. A second major argument against initiating a direct U.S-led military operation against the Syrian regime is that we lack definitive evidence at this time that the regime was responsible for the latest chemical attack. The Syrian regime was on the verge of defeating the rebels without the need to use chemical weapons. The chemical attack could even have been a false flag, so the argument goes, staged by terrorists who were still in control of the area to draw U.S. firepower against Assad. The U.S. is said to be gathering more intelligence before reaching a final conclusion. A third major reason to hold back is that this is not our fight. Assad, some argue, is no worse than the Islamic terrorists who have been trying to take over the country. Indeed, as horrible as Assad is, he may be the lesser of two evils. Our experiences in Iraq and Libya should have taught us that destabilizing, much less overthrowing, a secular dictatorship leads only to worse outcomes by creating power vacuums filled by Islamic terrorists.
These are all valid reasons not to involve ourselves any further in the Syrian conflict. Indeed, President Trump just recently expressed a desire for the U.S. to pull its forces out of Syria once the mission to defeat ISIS was completed. That said, he nevertheless wants to send a vital message in the wake of the latest alleged chemical attack. The Trump administration will not repeat the mistakes of the Obama era by drawing red lines and then ignoring them. However, it is not just a matter of maintaining the credibility of red lines per se. What matters is whether the content of the red line makes sense and the scope of military force used to enforce it.
Chemical weapons are weapons of mass destruction. Russia signed on as a guarantor that the Syrian regime would dispose of its chemical weapons stock and abide by the terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention to which Syria became a signatory. Russia has not only failed to fulfill this commitment. It has become the Syrian regime’s shield against the truth by preventing any accountability for conducting chemical weapons attacks if so determined by an international investigatory panel of experts. Russia killed the previous international investigatory mechanism established by the UN Security Council for that purpose, after the investigators had found the Syrian regime responsible for past chemical attacks. Russia’s consciousness of the Syrian regime’s guilt in the latest reported chemical attack is demonstrated by the length to which it has gone to block any new independent investigation as to who was responsible. As the United Kingdom's UN ambassador put it following the Security Council vote on a resolution to establish a new independent investigation into Syrian chemical attacks, which Russia vetoed, "Russia would rather cross the WMD line than risk sanction of its ally Syria. Instead we are asked to believe that the Russian version of this latest attack should be the one that the Security Council believes."
Aside from humanitarian concern for the innocent victims of chemical attacks, President Trump as commander in chief has the responsibility to protect U.S. forces already in Syria to fight ISIS against the use of chemical weapons, whether by the Syrian regime or the terrorists. The military operation in response to the latest alleged chemical attack need not be lengthy or involve the commitment of U.S. ground troops sent into battle. However, it must inflict much more pain than what former Secretary of State John Kerry had in mind when describing Obama’s planned military response that never happened - an "unbelievably small, limited kind of effort."
Beyond sending a clear message to the Syrian regime itself and to its enablers, President Trump would be sending a clear message to the Iranian and North Korean regimes that mere words on paper are insufficient to guarantee that they are not in a position to threaten international peace and security with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles capable of delivering them. Using military force to back up the red line in Syria against the use of chemical weapons will show that President Trump would be willing to do the same to back up his red lines against nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea.