Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
The events this past weekend in Syria and the response to it underscore the fact that there are two major issues erupting outside of Damascus. First, the use apparently of chemical chlorine gas—presumably by the Syrian Government–against rebel forces on the outskirts of the capital suggest that once again President Assad is prepared to violate his promise and a world-wide commitment not to introduce chemical weapons again into a conflict. This attack has once again produced horrifically tragic pictures of children being gassed to death or being injured by a ruler who has no compassion for his own people.
Second, an attack was launched against a Syrian air base and a drone command center installation near Damascus. This facility was both coordinating future Syrian, Hezbollah, and Iranian forces which likely were preparing additionally disruptive activity in the region, especially against Israel. The Netanyahu Government has not admitted responsibility for the raid against the Syrian base, although numerous reports suggest that Israel conducted the missile attack, albeit from within Lebanese airspace. It is understood that Israel was seeking to use this attack as a further signal–especially to Iran–that it did not intend to stand by while regional forces were being arrayed against it with tacit Russian approval.
It seems likely that Israel chose this moment to hit these targets at a time when the world’s primary attention was focused on the Syrian gas attack. In addition, there are reports that the White House was informed of this planned attack but Israel did not ask for U.S. approval. This also suggests that while Russia may have publically protested the attack it does not want to jeopardize its unusually tight relationship with President Trump.
Alternatively, the unique Putin-Trump relationship appears to be undergoing tests on two fronts. Trump can deny any culpability in the airbase attack. Trump also can choose to attack Syria for mounting the chemical attack on the pretext that he is continuing America’s effort to achieve stability and remove radical forces in Syria. Russia’s response does not stop Trump from ordering a possible forthcoming response against Syria in response to the chemical attack while Israel has delivered a message to it adversaries.
As an added footnote, it should be remembered that regardless of the world’s response to the Syrian gas attack or to the attack on the Syrian air bases, Monday was the first working day for President Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton. The addition of Bolton now gives the President a firm anti-Iran, anti-Syria, anti-Russia and pro-Israel voice within his inner circle. The question will be whether Bolton will demonstrate any effort to encourage a more diplomatic approach or only a bellicose one.