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Wary Of Escalation, U.S. And Allies Steer Clear Of Russia In Syria Air Strikes

The Damascus sky lit up with missile fire as the U.S. and its allies attack Syria on April 14.
The Damascus sky lit up with missile fire as the U.S. and its allies attack Syria on April 14.

After days of heated rhetoric between Washington and Moscow over the suspected Syrian chemical attack last week that left dozens of people dead, U.S. President Donald Trump made good on his threat to hit Syrian government targets with air strikes.

But the United States, Britain, and France appear to have taken strides to prevent a serious escalation with Russia in their joint bombing in the early hours of April 14 to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the alleged chemical attack they accuse his forces of carrying out.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said that the "targeted" air strikes on three western Syrian sites believed to be involved in researching and producing chemical weapons were carried out "with clear boundaries that expressly sought to avoid escalation and did everything possible to prevent civilian casualties."

While the Pentagon said Washington did not notify or coordinate with Russia concerning the operation -- with the exception of routine "de-confliction" coordination in Syrian airspace -- French Defense Minister Florence Parly said Russia was "warned beforehand."

"We are not looking for confrontation and refuse any logic of escalation," Parly told a news conference on April 14, Reuters reported.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly
French Defense Minister Florence Parly

The aerial bombardment came just days after Trump taunted Moscow on Twitter after its envoy to Lebanon was quoted as saying that Russia, which backs Assad militarily together with Iran, would shoot down any U.S. missiles launched against Syrian targets.

"Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and 'smart!'" Trump wrote, chastising Russia for supporting Assad, whom he called a "gas killing animal."

But Washington was clearly concerned about the potential of direct military confrontation with Russian personnel in Syria, where a U.S.-led counterattack in early February killed pro-Assad Russian fighters that Moscow says were private individuals and not uniformed Russian troops.

U.S. General Joseph Dunford said the three Syrian targets in the April 14 operation were "specifically identified" in order to "mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved."

U.S. General Joseph Dunford (file photo)
U.S. General Joseph Dunford (file photo)

"No one is interested in some kind of direct confrontation between Russia and the United States and its allies, because the consequences are unpredictable," Aleksei Malashenko, an analyst and leading Russian expert on the Syria conflict, told RFE/RL by telephone.

Russia's ambassador to the United States said following the air strikes that "such actions will not be left without consequences," and that "all responsibility for them rests with Washington, London, and Paris."

But President Vladimir Putin's statement on April 14 made no mention of a potential retaliation other than a convening of the UN Security Council "to discuss the aggressive actions" of the United States and its allies.

Malashenko said Putin's statement denouncing the U.S.-led air strikes as an "act of aggression against a sovereign state" was a predictable expression of outrage, but that Moscow was unlikely to respond militarily in defense of its ally.

"Putin's statement was, in such circumstances, pretty soft -- I would call it 'vegetarian.' Yes, there will be criticism, the [UN] Security Council -- there will be all sorts of things. It's already all over television, everyone is speaking out. But there's no talk of retaliation right now," Malashenko said.

Former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter that the strike "ended up fairly limited and targeted" and was "clearly designed to reduce escalation risks."

Senior Russian Defense Ministry official Sergei Rudskoi told an April 14 briefing in Moscow that following the air strikes, Moscow could examine providing S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Syria and other nations. He said Russia had declined to do so previously based on requests from "Western partners."

Rudskoi said preliminary information showed that no Syrian civilians or military personnel were killed in the bombardment, which Trump called a "perfectly executed strike." Syrian officials, meanwhile, reported injuries among military personnel and civilians.

U.S. Lieutenant-General Kenneth F. McKenzie told a Pentagon briefing on April 14 that the air strikes would "cripple" and "degrade" Syria's ability to produce and use chemical weapons, which Assad denies having.

Reuters cited an unidentified senior official in a regional alliance backing Assad as saying that Russia had provided an "early warning" about the planned air strikes to its allies in Syria and that "all military bases were evacuated a few days ago."

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (file photo)
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (file photo)

Analysts said that the air strikes, which U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called a "one-time shot" aimed at dissuading Assad from deploying chemical weapons, are unlikely to have inflicted significant damage on the Syrian president's military capabilities.

Randa Slim, an analyst and the Washington-based Middle East Institute, wrote on Twitter: "If this is it, Assad should be relieved."

Dan Smith, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), said supplies of chemical weapons, which Syria denies using, could have been moved from the sites prior to the bombing.

"I don't think that this would be a serious blow to Assad's capability, even as far as chemical warfare is concerned. And if you look at the overall scale, it would not be a serious degrading of his overall military capability or the ability of the government to inflict really horrible pain on civilian populations," Smith told RFE/RL in a telephone interview.

Smith added that he expects "more rhetorical heat" from Moscow rather than military action, but said escalating rhetoric also raises the risks of military escalation in the event that Russian officials or soldiers were injured or killed in a Western air strike in Syria.

"Heated rhetoric may well make it very difficult to handle and limit the escalation on that point," Smith said. "I don't think that one can relax about there being tougher words than action."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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