When the UN Security Council meets later today for the second day in a row, it might seem like a replay of yesterday’s rhetorical bombast. This time, though, the debate will have a new context, one in which Russian rhetorical manipulation and credibility will have less value. Moscow demanded the emergency meeting after last night’s air strikes on Syria, but only after failing to provide any protection to their Syrian clients:
Putin, in his condemnation Saturday of the airstrikes, called for an emergency U.N. Security Council session and described the assault as the latest in two decades of American-led interventions that, in the Kremlin’s telling, have unwound the international order.
“The current escalation of the situation around Syria is destructive for the entire system of international relations,” Putin said. “History will set things right, and Washington already bears the heavy responsibility for the bloody outrage in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya.”
However, another UNSC meeting is hardly what the Syrians expected last night. According to at least one report from Damascus, the attack took them by surprise, because the Syrians believed that the West had backed down from their reprisal threats.That belief stemmed in large part in Russian promises to retaliate. Despite previously warning that any attack on Syria would prompt a Russian military response, Russia went out of its way today to explain its inaction:
[T]he Defense Ministry even made sure to note that while Syria shot down some cruise missiles, Damascus did so using its own, Soviet-made — not Russian-made — equipment.
“Not a single one of the cruise missiles entered the zone of Russian air defense systems,” the Defense Ministry said.
The statements were significant because the head of the Russian General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, had previously said the Russian military would respond to U.S. airstrikes that put Russian lives at risk by shooting down the missiles and potentially the ships or planes that fired them. That had led to feverish speculation on Russian television, and from some Russian politicians, that a U.S. strike on Syria could quickly devolve into a nuclear standoff as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis.
Saturday’s calibrated response in Moscow to the U.S. airstrike against a key Middle Eastern ally illustrated in stark terms the Kremlin’s balancing act as it pushes to expand its influence abroad but seeks to maintain control over how far tensions rise. And it shows that Washington appears to have succeeded for now in delivering a blow that did not provoke Russia into a military response — even though the degree to which the missile attack hindered Assad’s chemical-weapons capability is far from clear.
In other words, it was a called bluff, perhaps assisted in part by Russian signaling earlier in the week. Moscow had ramped up the rhetoric, but when it became clear that Donald Trump still planned to launch reprisals for Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, they began changing their tune and hinting at coordination of targeting to avoid inadvertent Russian casualties. Last night’s Pentagon briefing included a flat denial of any cooperation with Russia other than standard “deconfliction” requests to clear airspace, which General Dunford called routine and ongoing.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis planned the attack for a minimum amount of Russian engagement, according to the New York Times. Russia’s lack of response beyond the rhetorical shows that Mattis pulled it off, too:
In sending missiles and bombs at Syria, President Trump hit more targets and used more firepower than he did in a similar military strike last year. But in the end, he opted for what was still a restrained operation that was evidently calculated to avoid provoking Syria’s patrons in Russia and Iran into retaliating. …
Mr. Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday night that the strike was devised to minimize the chances of accidentally killing Russian soldiers and limit the damage to facilities directly associated with Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. While he called it a “heavy strike,” he said, “Right now this is a one-time shot and I believe it has sent a very strong message to dissuade him, to deter him from doing it again.” …
“The Russian and Iranian responses will likely be shrill rhetorically, but direct responses are unlikely,” said Dennis Ross, a longtime Middle East expert who has worked for several presidents and is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The targets struck were tied to C.W. infrastructure,” he added, meaning chemical weapons, “and not the bases where the Russians and Iranians are.”
Mr. Ross said it was possible that Iran could respond indirectly by using Shia militias against American forces in Iraq or possibly Syria but even that he said was “less likely because of the limited nature of this attack.”
How effective were the strikes? They concentrated on three targets, one in Damascus and two around Homs, where Assad’s forces create and store chemical weapons. In a briefing this morning, Joint Staff director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told reporters that the initial assessment shows the strikes will set back Assad’s WMD capabilities “for years.”
Donald Trump seems pleased with the results:
A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 14, 2018
It’s all over for now except for the shouting, which will commence at the UNSC, perhaps as soon as an hour or so from now. It’s over on the ground too, where CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh notes some of the Syrian government’s unlikely claims about the action last night and provides clear visual evidence that the Western alliance hit its targets. How badly they set back Assad’s weapons efforts remains to be seen, of course:
— CNN (@CNN) April 14, 2018
The claims of intercepts seem pretty far-fetched even under the best of circumstances. If all that Assad used was old Soviet-era anti-aircraft defenses, they’d be ludicrous. McKenzie claimed that they saw no effective defenses against the missile strikes:
A Pentagon official: To best of our knowledge “no Syrian weapon had any effect on anything we did”.
— Ben Riley-Smith (@benrileysmith) April 14, 2018
Neither did any Syrian ally.
Update: The UNSC meeting is under way, and Russia wants a vote for a resolution condemning the attacks last night. The only mystery there is which of the three nations that conducted the attack will veto it first. In response, Nikki Haley reminded the panel that “chemical weapons are a threat to us all,” and that if Assad tries it again, the US is ready to respond:
Amb. Haley: "I spoke to the president this morning and he said, 'If the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again, the United States is locked and loaded.'" pic.twitter.com/jPf6l9pObY
— NBC News (@NBCNews) April 14, 2018
“When our president draws a red line,” Haley added, “our president enforces a red line.”
Update: Interesting, given Germany’s reluctance to get involved:
BREAKING: NATO chief Stoltenberg says all NATO allies back Syria airstrikes by US, UK and France .
— The Associated Press (@AP) April 14, 2018
Russia’s starting to look very isolated in its defense of a WMD-deploying tyrant.