Within 24 hours of the US airstrike on an air base in Syria last week, the US claimed it was not pursuing regime change. That was a “kiss of death”.
Four days later, as he landed on Russian soil, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad must go. Tillerson’s comment on the future of Assad and his regime came as he arrived in Moscow for talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.
Tillerson’s comments are an opening gambit in a renewed game of diplomatic chess. Lavrov has, to date, proven to be a master playing that game, having humiliated former President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, when they failed to act following a 2012 Syrian chemical weapons attack crossing a claimed “red line”.
Tillerson’s blunt comment on Assad’s future follows his statement on Monday that if Russia was not complicit in last week’s chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s Idlib province then it was at least incompetent in monitoring Syria’s 2014 removal of chemical weapons. Following the US missile strike on a Syrian airbase in response to the Khan Sheikhoun attack, Russia, Iran, Syria and their Hezbollah allies have threatened retaliation in response to further US attacks.
At one level, tensions between the main protagonists are running high. At another level, however, there is much proverbial sabre rattling but less likelihood the rusty old blades will be displayed, much less used.
Donald Trump’s retaliation against Syria for the Khan Sheikhoun attack was at least as much for domestic US consumption as a disinterested assertion of global policing or — heaven forbid — an expression of moral principles. Trump’s first months in office have not been the traditional political honeymoon, and his political standing remains around 42%.
The US strike against a Syrian airbase was, therefore, as much domestic political theatre as it as moral or strategic imperative. Russia understands this.
While Russia remains a nuclear superpower, its nuclear arsenal and associated technology is getting old and less reliable. It has, however, proven its capacity to assert military authority in the Ukraine and in support of Syria’s then-faltering regime.
That, perhaps, is about the limit of Russia’s capacity. It is a truism of warfare that to sustain a conventional military conflict a state must have a sufficiently robust economy. Russia’s economy is slightly larger than that of Australia.
Iran’s economy sits between those of Nigeria and Thailand, and it does not want renewed economic sanctions. Moreover, Israel, would obliterate Iranian capacity should the latter choose to vent its anger on the US regional proxy.
Even Hezbollah, as a non-state actor, talks much but can do little, while Syria itself is struggling just to survive.
Syria’s key battle in Idlib province, of which Khan Sheikhoun occupies a strategic position, explains why the Assad regime wanted to try to shock Syrian rebels into disarray with the chemical weapons it had agreed to remove in 2014. Even with Russian support, the Assad regime is at best surviving, if not yet prevailing.
Tillerson’s visit to Moscow in intended to push for the removal of the Assad regime as a prerequisite for ending the Syrian war. Yet the best chance of doing so was at its outset of the war, when the US could have achieved that goal by accepting Russia’s strategic interests in Syria.
It would then have been possible for Assad and his cronies to leave while keeping in place the key institutions of state. This would have avoided the key mistake of the Iraq campaign, apart from invading the country in the first place, of dismantling the state apparatus.
Perhaps Tillerson’s talks with Lavrov will now reprise this obvious if shop-soiled idea of recognising Russian strategic interest. At such a late stage, this still might broker a way forward.
But it would mean that Trump would have to acknowledge Russian hegemony in Syria, regardless of who heads the regime. Such a move would enhance the international prestige of Russia and Vladimir Putin at the expense of the US and President Trump.
Asymmetric warfare favors the smaller, more mobile and more locally embedded combatants. It may be that asymmetric diplomacy is also doing the same thing.
* Damien Kingsbury is Professor of International Politics at Deakin University