There is little doubt that Bashar al-Assad is going to unleash another chemical weapons attack. He will do so with hope of buying more time for his regime by igniting a US-Russian conflict.
This is not an unreasonable hope. For President Putin, the defense of the Assad regime is far more than a distant “third world” battle for influence or military bases. It is hugely important to his domestic political calculus. Having chosen patriotic fever over economic growth as the foundation of his popularity (which is the same as the regime’s legitimacy), he must continue to produce real or alleged foreign policy triumphs, instead of the institutional reforms needed to revive the economy by tackling the increasingly toxic investment climate.
With Putin’s “re-election” scheduled for next year, forcing the US to back down in Syria would be a godsend to a Kremlin weakened by mass protests in nearly 100 Russian cities two weeks ago. Putin can do so, among other things, by embedding more Russian “advisors” among the Syrian government troops, deploying Russian planes to Syrian airbases, and bringing more air-defense systems. The choice will be clear: attack Assad and risk killing Russian troops – and losing US planes.
Can Putin be deterred from such a dangerous escalation? It won’t be easy, but it might be possible.
It has been reported that Secretary Tillerson is going to ask Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about why Russia launched cyberattacks on the United States and why Russia did not ensure the destruction of Assad’s chemical arsenal. The answers: because it could, and because Secretary of State John Kerry gave Moscow a golden opportunity to save the Assad regime.
Tillerson should convey a message of credibility and seriousness: The US will bomb Assad again if he uses chemical weapons. If Russia escalates, so will the US.
So instead of wasting time on Foreign Minister Lavrov’s denials and counter-accusations, Tillerson should convey a message of credibility and seriousness: The US will bomb Assad again if he uses chemical weapons. If Russia escalates, so will the US. For starters, Washington will lead the allies to ratchet up economic sanctions. It will also, at long last, provide Ukraine with modern defensive weapons, including anti-tank missiles and modern radars to pinpoint Russian tanks and artillery. With the Russian economy barely emerging out of a recession and the Russian public likely to begin to chaff at increasing casualties in an undeclared war in Ukraine which is now in its fourth year, both measures may significantly increase the domestic political costs of the Syrian adventure, which are the only costs Putin cares about.
Nothing is guaranteed, of course. Having ridden the tiger of militarized patriotic mobilization so far and for so long, Putin may not be able to get off the beast now. All he may be able to do is to feed it more meat, the bloodier the better. But it is certainly worth a try.
Managing, not to mention dislodging, the murderous Assad today is inseparable from producing a strategy for dealing with Moscow—something the US has not attempted since Hilary Clinton’s staff mistranslated “reset” into Russian.
So what’s the plan, Mr. President?