Syria now the center of a major international face-off

Syria now the center of a major international face-off

A week is a long time in politics, as recent events in Syria have underlined once again. First US President Donald Trump shocked and confused both allies and foes when he announced, off-script, that he wanted to pull the US military out of Syria “very soon.” That statement took the Pentagon and the State Department by surprise. A few days later, however, the White House said the president was now in favor of staying in Syria for the short term.
But, in the wake of various reports that the Assad regime bombed the besieged suburb of Douma with chemical gas on Saturday, resulting in the deaths of at least 70 civilians, President Trump — who a year ago ordered missile strikes against a Syrian airbase in retaliation for a similar chemical attack in Idlib — found himself on the offensive once more. Blaming Russia and Iran for supporting “animal Assad,” the president vowed to take action, promising that the regime would pay a “big price.”
By Monday evening, Trump had again promised to deliver a “forceful” response against all those involved, including Russia and Iran. He said that response would come within the next 48 hours. At the UN Security Council, US ambassador Nikki Haley said the US would respond to the attack, while Russia’s envoy warned that the repercussions would be grave.
France has also condemned the chemical attack and indicated it was ready to take action. Russia warned against targeting the regime on the basis of what it said was fake news, denying that Damascus had used banned agents in Douma. Less than 24 hours later, Russia and Syria accused Israel of striking an air base near Homs, killing dozens, including Iranians. The Pentagon was quick to deny involvement. Israel did not comment, but its Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the Israeli air force was once again active in Syria. Less than two months ago, Israel struck a number of targets in Syria following the downing of an F-15 by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles. Trump’s threats, the Israeli strike and Russia’s stern warnings have reshuffled the cards in Syria once more.
The coming hours will be crucial. Whether the US president will order another strike against Syrian targets, probably with the French and even the British joining in, remains to be seen. The odds are that he will follow his threats through with deeds. Such a development would certainly test the Russians and the Iranians. What the response of the Kremlin would be is now the bigger question, but it is almost certain that Moscow is taking Trump’s threats seriously. The scope of the US retaliation will determine Russia’s response. Targeting Russian military positions in Syria would drive both sides to the brink.
Israel was rattled by Trump’s earlier statement on pulling out from Syria. The Israeli media reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a “tense” phone call with the US president on the issue, while Lieberman hinted Israel was not consulted on the matter. It is no secret that Israel is alarmed by Iran’s growing presence in Syria and it has never hesitated to take pre-emptive action against Hezbollah and Iranian targets there.

Israel was rattled by Trump’s earlier statement on pulling out from Syria. The Israeli media reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a “tense” phone call with the US president on the issue.

Osama Al Sharif

Sunday night’s raid was the latest in a series of strikes that Israel has carried out in recent years. The possibility of a major confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria is becoming greater every day, especially now that President Bashar Assad and his allies are closer than ever to declaring victory.
But the unfolding events of the past week raise many more questions that require answers. For starters, why would the Syrian regime risk drawing an international backlash and US wrath by using chemical weapons in Douma when it had already scored a decisive victory there? And why commit such a foolish act less than a week after the US president announced that he was looking for a speedy withdrawal from Syria? In addition, why would Assad put himself in such a position when the world has come to the realization that the Syrian president has won and will remain in power?
Furthermore, it is known that Israel coordinates with Russia over its military operations in Syrian airspace. Were the Russians warned of Sunday’s Israeli strike? If they were — it now appears that Israel told the US of its strike in advance — why would Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov describe the attack on the T-4 air base as a “very dangerous development?” What are the ramifications of the Israeli attack on relations between Moscow and Tehran, a week after the leaders of the two allied nations met in Ankara to define each party’s scope of influence in Syria? And will the Russians end their coordination with Israel as a result of the raid?
Regardless, the Douma incident and the retaliatory Israeli strike have forced a new agenda onto key players. The clash in Syria and over Syria between various players, especially the US and Russia, will further complicate relations between Washington and Moscow. A punitive US strike against Assad would force Russian President Vladimir Putin to retaliate in some measure. Both sides would hope to emerge from this latest crisis with few losses and some gains. Syria is now the center of a major international face-off — but maybe this is what Israel wanted all along.

• Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
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