April 28, 2017

The Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction and the “Retaliation Operation” in Syria

The Independent Analytical Centre for Geopolitical Studies “Borysfen Intel” allows analysts to express their views on specific political, economic, security, information situation in Ukraine and the world at large, based on personal research and geopolitical analysis.


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 Vladimir (Zeev) Khanin


Born in Zaporizhzhya, he graduated from the Institute of Africa of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Ph. D. (political science). After repatriation, he taught at a number of educational institutions in Israel, lectured at the universities of Oxford and London. Author of many publications in the world media, wrote 9 books, co-author and editor of a number of collective monographs.

Cooperates with Voice of Israel Radio, Radio Liberty, TV Channel 9 of Israel.


American, Israeli and Russian Context of the Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction and the “Retaliation Operation” in Syria. Part 1


Israel's Reactions and the Middle East Context

Judging by the uniquely positive and unusually solidarity comments from the capitals of the moderate Sunni regimes in the region (with the exception of Egypt), the US missile strike of April 7 is the actions for which many in the Middle East had been waiting for a long time. It is clear that these regimes are ready to see D. Trump's restoration of “red lines” against B. Assad's government, as well as his criticism of the de facto legitimization of Iran's nuclear program as a positive change in the previous US policy, which they had been perceiving almost as B. Obama's betrayal of the interests of Washington's traditional allies in favor of the interests of the Shiite “axis of evil”. It is significant that the Arab leaders of the region this time did not make any special effort to hide the fact that their interests in this sense differ little from the interests of Jerusalem — in contrast to their traditional desire to by all means avoid a public demonstration of the coincidence of certain tactical and strategic goals of the “moderate” Sunni regimes and Israel.

As for Israel itself, the tone was initially set by the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who called the retaliatory strike at the Shayrat airbase near the town of Homs after the tragedy in Idlib as “an example to the entire free world”, which, according to Rivlin, “...should support any steps, needed to put an end to the brutality of the war in Syria”. The Prime Minister of Israel, who called the use of the weapon of mass distraction “an impermissible act”, also supported the US President, who, according to B. Netanyahu, “...sent a strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated”. And, quite expectedly, B. Netanyahu hurried to express the hope that Trump would act decisively not only against Damascus, but also against Tehran, Pyongyang and other similar regimes. In the same vein, the member of the military and political cabinet, the Minister of Transport and Intelligence Yisrael Katz called the US missile strike “an important strategic move” and “...the logical reaction of the great power to the crossing of the “red lines” by a cruel dictator and a clear message of the led by Iran axis supporting him”.

It is significant that the USA's missile strike on the airbase of the Syrian government troops was supported by the formal leader of the Israeli opposition, the leader of the “Zionist Camp” block Itzhak (”Buzhi”) Herzog. He defined what happened on 7 April as “...an important message to the “Damascus butcher”, handed over at the right time and in the right place”. In other words, US President Donald Trump's decision to strike on the Syrian airbase, with the exception of the cautiously indistinct reactions of the ultra-left and Arab circles, provoked positive responses from virtually the whole political spectrum — a rare case in the Israeli political practice.

How can this unanimity be explained, and what, from the point of view of the official Jerusalem, is Israel's interest here? In our opinion, this interest includes two aspects: regional and bilateral. The former is connected with the stable low level of confidence of Israeli leaders towards the guarantees of Israel's security, that had sounded in the previous eight years from Washington, and relying on which, the Jewish state was supposed to pay, under the idea of the previous US President's advisers, with its cardinal concessions on the Palestinian and Iranian tracks the then reading of the American interests in the Middle East. In addition to the fact that such ideas did not find understanding of the majority of the Israeli society and its political class, the fear of Jerusalem was also caused by the direction of the then new US policy in the region, suggesting a “pragmatic” approach to the system of common values and long-term strategic commitments on which the American-Israeli relations were traditionally based. Because of this, the Israeli leaders did not rule out the chance to remain face to face with (in the opinion of the Israelis, inevitably negative) consequences of such experiments. And the USA's escapist line in the Syrian crisis only added new arguments to these fears.

This plot also played a role in the braking of the emerging dialogue between Israel and the moderate pro-Western Arab-Sunni states of the region. The latter were clearly interested in cooperating with Israel to curb the threats to their existence from hegemonic aspirations of Tehran and the radical Islamist Sunni movements, as well as to remove the “Palestinian” theme undermining their internal stability. Israel's condition was the readiness of the Arab monarchies, which have been trying for 15 years to entrust the entire price of the issue to Israel, “to pay their share”, including on the Palestinian track. However, the doubt about America's ultimatum support for Israel's position, stemming from the doctrine of “non-interference”, further reinforced by the demonstrative “cooling” of the USA's relations with the Jewish state in order to “reset” the USA's relations with the Arab-Islamic world, made such a shift unrealistic.

As for Israel's itself attitude to the situation in Syria, the American-Israeli disagreements that took place during Barack Obama's two cadences on most aspects of the national security (of course, except for continued dynamic development even at the peak of these disagreements in the sphere of military-technical cooperation), this way or other affected this aspect. Unlike the USA, Israel, throughout the 6 years of the Syrian crisis, believed that Bashar Assad's regime was not the best option for ensuring stability in the region. At least, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has never missed an opportunity to point out that those who are looking for stability in Syria should understand that this will not be possible if Assad remains in power. The same opinion, sometimes choosing milder definitions, has been clearly shared by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other key representatives of the military and political leadership of Israel.

On the other hand, the USA's idea that Israel should have supported the line of non-interference in the Syrian crisis, did not raise any objections in Jerusalem. However, in the light of Washington's problematic attitude to Damascus' respecting the established by it “red lines”, the question remained: to what extent will the US security guarantees given to its strategic ally be relevant if this crisis “overflows” the borders of the Jewish state — in what, by all indications, the Iranian patrons of the official Syria would be interested?

Under such circumstances, Israel's leaders preferred to make direct arrangements with Moscow, which showed willingness to take into account some of Israel's interests. Including the understanding of the reasons why Israel is not ready to allow the opening of Iran's new anti-Israeli front from the Syrian part of the Golan Heights, and of the efforts to stop the Assad regime's supplies or its assistance in supplying through Syrian territory of Iranian and Russian weapons to the terrorist groups of radical Islamists hostile to Israel.

This scheme, worked out during numerous Russian-Israeli contacts at the highest level by professional teams of the two countries, does work, as evidenced by the absence of open objections by the Russian side to the actions taken by the IDF (or attributed to it) in 2015–2017. For example, during this period, there were four dozen strikes (five times more than in the previous two years) against Syrian warehouses and arms transfers, including Russian ones, intended for being passed over to the South Lebanese Hezbollah, and capable of influencing the strategic balance in the area of the northern borders of Israel. As well as the severe suppression by the Israeli Air Force and the IDF artillery of the sources of incidental shelling of the territory of Israel from the Syrian side, and of Syrian air defense systems trying to open fire on Israeli aircrafts. In turn, in Jerusalem, despite many years of efforts to prevent supplying Syria with Russian air defense systems “S-300”, they reacted with restraint to the deployment of a much more advanced version of these complexes, being sure that the military tasks assigned to them, at least today, are outside the context of Israeli-Syrian relations.


The Russian Factor

Therefore, the question to what extent these, in principle, suiting both the sides of understanding, woven into the scheme of the agreements achieved in 2015 and 2016 between Israel and the United States and between the United States and Russia, remain relevant in the new situation, is far from being idle.

At first glance, the answer to this question is rather negative. Russia has rejected the charges brought against the Syrian regime in using weapons of mass destruction against civilians and sharply condemned the American “retaliation strike”. According to media reports, in a conversation with B. Netanyahu, Russian President V. Putin also expressed his displeasure with the fact that Israel accepted the American and Western version of the events in general, without waiting for the results of the “independent international investigation”. Some Israeli experts hastened to call this “an alarming sign of the possible negative impact on the coordination of Israeli and Russian actions in Syria, and on Russia's willingness to listen to Israel's wishes not to let Iran to Israel's borders”. For its part, information was immediately “fused” into the Arab press from sources saying that Syria, Iran and Hezbollah are weighing the opportunity to attack Israel if American attacks in Syria continue. However, the reliability of the source, as well as the seriousness of these statements, remain questionable, not to mention the fact that these subjects' hatred of the Jewish state hardly needs additional motives.

It should be noted that even before the events described in Jerusalem, there were reports on growing presence of Hezbollah fighters and Iranian IRGC on the Syrian part of the Golan Heights, who, among other things, had heavy Russian artillery (during his meeting with V. Putin in March this year, B. Netanyahu informed the Russian President that Israel does know about it). And, accordingly, Israel is skeptic about Russia's ability in such a situation to guarantee peace in the areas adjacent to the Israeli borders.

In this sense, the sanctioned by Trump, US Navy's strike on the airbase in Syria in response to the alleged chemical attack by the Assad regime, only accelerated the events, prompting Netanyahu to put forward the idea of creating a buffer zone between Israel, Jordan and Syria “...within the framework of any future resolution to end the six-year Syrian civil war”. According to the Israeli media, creation of a safe zone securing of which won't directly involve the Israeli military, is meant to keep the forces of Iran and the Hezbollah terrorist groups at a safe distance from Israeli territory and to serve as a factor in maintaining regional stability. It is in this context, according to the same data, that this idea is already being considered at the international level.

Russia's point of view on this matter is not yet known. Anyway, Moscow has already made it clear that in case of deepening confrontation between Syria and the United States, Russia's sympathies and support will be with Damascus, who, along with Hezbollah and Iran, does not skimp on threats to the Americans (for example, does not exclude an attack on American targets in the Persian Gulf). At first glance, this is the answer to Rex Tillerson's statement at the meeting of Foreign Ministers of the largest economically developed countries (Group of Seven) in the Italian city of Lucca on 11 April, 2017. On the eve of his departure to Moscow, Rex Tillerson presented this group and their Middle Eastern allies' joint position as follows: “Russia will have to choose between the United States and Western adherents, or the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran and Hezbollah. It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and we hope that the Russian government concludes that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Assad”.

Russian representatives expectedly rejected the very idea of the possibility of discussing ultimatums of this kind as “useless and counterproductive”. In parallel with these statements, Russia suspended the mechanism of coordination with the United States of flights in the airspace of Syria, which, theoretically, is fraught with the possibility of clashes between the US and Russian air forces. All this, it would seem, confirms the arguments of those who believe that the USA's actions in Syria have pushed Russia to a close alliance with Iran and its satellites, which increases the risk of a new large-scale regional conflict.


First Results

And yet, this story has a different side. Firstly, while Russia and the United States presented mutually exclusive data on the effectiveness of the US missile strike on the Syrian air force base, both reports converge at one point — the relatively low losses among the base's personnel, with the US Department of Defense emphasizing that measures had been taken to minimize human casualties. Besides, it is noted that the attacks were not applied to facilities where chemical weapons arsenals could have been stored. In this connection, one cant ignore the fact that the US military on 7 April conducted their operation precisely in the style of roughly similar agreements that were reached at one time between B. Netanyahu and V. Putin. The Russians, who use the Shayrat base as an airbase of their VKS in Syria, were warned almost at the same time as the US partners in NATO and Israel, which implies the presence of an American intention to avoid a strike directly on the Russian military.

It is believed that Moscow, in turn, had warned Damascus, and thus part of aircrafts, and not only Russian but also part of the Syrian personnel managed to leave the airbase before the strike. Anyway, the Russian contingent in Syria, and Russia as a subject of the conflict, were left out. If nothing else, this version is confirmed by the fact that the Russian visit of the US Secretary of State planned before the explosion in the relationship was not canceled — only, quite understandably, it shifted the accents on the agenda.

Then, the Americans have already made it clear that their attack on Syria is a one-off move, the aim of which was to send a clear message to all the actors involved in the conflict, that their freedom of maneuver in Syria is not unlimited. But this does not mean that Washington, at least at this stage, intends to carry out large-scale military intervention on the side of one of the groups fighting against each other in Syria. At the most, the Americans can consider the introduction of additional economic sanctions against Damascus, on the possibility of which hinted the US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Finally, it soon became clear that “Tillerson's Russian dilemma”, despite the initial form of its presentation, in fact is not the West's ultimatum to Moscow. According to R. Tillerson himself, Washington is not yet sure that Moscow is not in principle ready to fulfill its obligations in Syria. The head of the US State Department does not rule out that the Russians were simply unable to prevent the use of chemical weapon, although he pointed out that he did not see any special difference between these scenarios.

Be that as it may, Tillerson came to Moscow obviously not to bring the situation to a complete break, but to try and reach an agreement, which fact was emphasized by the Russian side too. He had the authority not only of Trump, but also of British Prime Minister Theresa May, who saw the visit of the US Secretary of State as “a window of opportunity to end [the unpromising for the Russian government] alliance with Damascus”. And also the Federal Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, who hopes that the united position of the US and Europe will manage, as the Foreign Minister in her cabinet Sigmar Gabriel put it, “to get Russia out of Assad's [aggressive] corner, at least to the point that they are ready to participate in finding a political solution”. It is significant that after R. Tillerson's meeting with S. Lavrov, the heads of both foreign policy departments were received by the President of Russia V. Putin, which, according to Russian media, should have taken place only if “the sides saw that there was some sense in the negotiations”.

D. Trump and R. Tillerson, in fact, suggested that Putin and Lavrov should return to the idea of large-scale cooperation between Russia and the United States in Syria and Iraq — perhaps through Washington's joining the “Astana process” — in exchange for Russia's renunciation of the alliance with Tehran and Hezbollah. That, in fact, was one of the aspects of the idea of “rationalization” of the relations between the two countries expressed by Trump before his inauguration (the probing of possible steps in this direction seems to have cost Michael Flynn his post of the National Security Adviser to the US President and who did not really start fulfilling his duties). Moreover, the Americans were ready to take into consideration those interests and obligations of Russian leaders, which previously seemed hardly acceptable to them. For example, not only the preservation, in one form or another, of the Alawite regime, but also the power of B. Assad himself. Today, due to the USA and its allies' being sure that it is B. Assad who is behind the use of chemical weapon, this is hardly possible, but the rest of the USA's proposals seem to remain in force.

From the point of view of the American side, the compromise offered by the USA, if it is achieved, will be a classical “win-win game”, since it gives Putin the opportunity to “save face” and most of his Syrian strategic assets. And to the Americans, the currently declared priorities in Syria, according to the US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, sound like “pushing out Iranian influence from Syria, getting B. Assad out, defeating ISIS and moving (the crisis) towards a political solution” — to get Russia as a partner in achieving at least the last two priorities on this list.

It seems that, from the USA's point of view, such a result would be the best political outcome of the US Navy's “retaliation operation”, which is one of the few indicators of the White House and the US State Department's new Middle East Doctrine. Indeed, the change in Washington's attitude toward the traditional Middle Eastern allies cannot be overlooked. Israel was, of course, the first in line for a “reset” of relations. Next was Egypt, the “reset” in the relations with which happened a few days ago, when the Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was warmly welcomed into the White House. Next in the line are the another Middle Eastern pro-Western Sunni monarchies. But Washington's bilateral relations with one of them in this case are of less importance than the change in US regional policy in general, and towards Syria in particular.

What in this course is from the developed strategy, what — from spontaneous reactions to events, and what from wishfulthinking of romantic hopes, as the American saying goes, — one still cannot tell. For example, commentators recommend not to overestimate the positive reaction of the capitals of pro-Western Arab regimes, where certain concerns about future developments are also felt. As one of the local experts writes, “reducing the absolute number of aircraft capable of bombing Syrian civilians (absolutely a good thing in its own right), the strike is useful in sending a message that international norms prohibiting chemical weapons use cannot simply be violated and merely condemned with words”. Yet, “in case of expansion of the intervention of external forces in Syria, there is a danger of losing control over the process”, the consequences of which are difficult to foresee today. The greatest doubts in this sense were expressed precisely by Egypt, refraining from greetings on the American attacks on Syria and calling on the USA and Russia not to escalate the crisis, but to try to control it.

It is more important for the host of the White House to find mutual understanding on all these issues today not only with his counterparts in European and Arab capitals, and in Jerusalem's Kaplan Street, but also in the Kremlin. But, whatever the decision, it is the President of the United States Donald Trump who is still the main winner following the latest events in the eyes of America and Western countries and at first glance. “In the muzzle of the boiling volcano, which is the Middle East”, says Zalman Shoval (former Israel's Ambassador to the United States and Political Adviser to Ariel Sharon), — “the rulers of Damascus [for the last two years] believed that nothing would change. They thought that they could still act as they had in the past [under the previous US administration], including making use of chemical weapons. But Trump changed the rules, and his quick response showed them just how mistaken they were”.

Some experts, however, believe that this situation in some sense can work for Assad. Thus, Israeli military and political observer Yoni Ben-Menachem suspects that “...the American attack on Syria and the chemical massacre perpetrated by Assad buried until further notice any possibility of negotiations in Geneva in an attempt to find a political settlement in Syria”. “Assad, — Ben-Menachem says, — has openly stated on several occasions that only a military solution will defeat the rebels and restore his control over all parts of Syria, and, I am sure, that with the support of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah he could do it”.

Of course, the question remains: was Assad consciously, as Ben-Menachem alludes, trying to achieve such a result by organizing a “chemical massacre” in the province of Idlib. Not using, for political reasons, chemical weapons specifically on 4 April, but in principle having been quite capable of doing so, had the circumstances allowed (in the words of the Australian parliamentarian and security expert Andrew Wilkie). Either he simply uses a situation that, as other experts prefer to think, arose without his participation. But if Assad's logic is such, neither in the first, nor in the second, nor in the third case, does anything prevent him from realizing the power scenario in the future. For the limited and gin general symbolic American strike that does not in any way negate the military achievements of the pro-government coalition in recent months, is likely to have no continuation. And in case of further escalation, as Damask may expect, Russia will willy-nilly have to restrain the Americans.

As for other subjects of the conflict, the scheme of rapprochement between the USA and Russia at the expense of Iran and its satellites, of course, did not make the Iranian ayatollahs' happy. As a result, Iran today, in fact, is the main beneficiary of the failure, due to the use of chemical weapons against civilians in the province of Idlib and the American “retaliation operation”, of the first attempts to achieve such agreements. We will make a reservation that what has been said does not necessarily mean that it was the Iranians who arranged or sanctioned the use of the weapons of mass destruction. According to some observers, the traces should be sought in other places, for example, in the special services of Turkey, which enters another round of confrontation with Russia, in the media of which there are hints of Ankara's having to do with recent terrorist acts in St. Petersburg.

So, even if we accept the version that Iran or B. Assad have nothing to do with this story (at least about Assad the majority of observers do not think so yet), Tehran and Damascus look like the parties that are most interested in domination of military schemes for the development of the conflict in Syria itself. As well as in the atmosphere of the “new Cold war” around it. Many believe that most of the time in this camp are Turkey, Qatar and, to some extent, the Saudis. On the contrary, the United States, the Europeans, and, of course, Israel, are in fact interested in the opposite scenario. Russia's position in this situation, can change the balance in one direction or another. What choice will it make?