Following the U.S. cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base on Thursday night, which the Trump administration said was in retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack by Bashar al-Assad’s government, Syria Deeply asked our expert community about some of the most pressing questions raised by the crisis. As part of this series, we asked experts what they are watching for next, and what questions should be asked.
Hassan Hassan, coauthor of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” and senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy: This will be up to the U.S. – deterrence works if the country seeking it is willing to follow up on it and be consistent about its preparedness to do more if the need arises. The regime and its allies still have the upper hand in terms of escalation, especially given the growing American footprint inside the country. Damascus knows that the U.S. wants to focus on ISIS, and destabilizing the regime will, for now, go counter to that focus. The regime, Iran and Russia can still make it that much harder for the U.S. to march into Raqqa and fight ISIS in a country that is still exposed to ISIS attacks on multiple fronts. They know that it is in the interest of the U.S. to play nice. Russia and the U.S. will eventually seek to sort out their differences and reach an understanding in Syria. The U.S. might be more in a rush to do this, though, than Russia, considering the need to march into Raqqa soon.
Valerie Szybala, executive director, the Syria Institute: I can tell you the things that have been interesting me, that I’m not seeing anyone asking. How are Syrians responding? I think that’s the most fascinating question. Because in any scenario, at the end of the day, everyone wants Syria to be for Syrians and no one wants to have a military conflict there forever, so everyone will pack up and leave, even decades down the road. I’ve been watching and following my Syrian friends in besieged areas, and there is a lot of elation. There’s a little bit of remaining doubt but people have become so cynical that that’s to be expected. Skepticism along the lines of, “So, it’s OK to keep killing us with bombs and other methods as long as you don’t use chemical weapons? Are you going to protect us from these other attacks?” But mainly there’s been a lot of elation.
I’ve been looking at pro-regime media. I think that you can usually tell a lot about the direction something is going to take by what the narrative is that they are trying to sell. A pretty clear sign is about the chemical attack itself. You could tell from Russia and the regime, their responses were not unified to the chemical attack. There were different stories, the regime saying we absolutely didn’t launch a strike, and Russia saying, well, actually the Syrian government did but they hit a chemical weapons factory, so it was the militants’ weapons, and then you had a variety of different plays on that being pushed around by these trolls on Twitter and Facebook. And then these conspiracy theories started popping back up of people recycling things from 2013. That response alone told me that they were in trouble because when they are in control of the situation the propaganda narrative is much more unified on all sides. And then watching some of these people get really rabid as Thursday went on and there was a real concern that the U.S. might strike, I haven’t seen that level of concern since 2013. I think we’ll be able to tell a lot from the way they are messaging it to Syrians and to Russians.
Rami Khouri, director, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut: What I’ll be watching for is, what the Syrian government, Russia and Iran do in the Idlib area and around Aleppo against the rebels who are still fighting the Syrian government. Is there any change in how Russia, Iran, Syria and the U.S. and others work together to fight ISIS and defeat ISIS completely? And the third thing is, what’s going to happen among the very divided opposition groups in Syria? Will they try to unite into one large united opposition group or will they continue to remain fragmented and sometimes even fight each other? And finally, will the other powers in the region and the world, Turkey, the Europeans, China, who could play a role, are they going to just continue doing what they are doing, which is mostly watching from the side, or will aid to the rebels increase to try to overthrow Assad? I think that’s important.
Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow, Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies: The U.S. has taken the first move and the Russians and the Iranians are now going to do one of two things. They can either take a major action to respond that can lead to significant escalation. Or they could take a waiting move, take an action that doesn’t escalate but passes the buck back. It’s not clear what they’re going to choose. If I were in the position of the Iranians, for example, I would try to minimize cost, minimize exposure and continue to make it difficult for the U.S. to shape an environment where they have a far better position in terms of strategic decision-making in the Levant. If I were the Russians, it’s more difficult because there are more moving parts, there’s Crimea, the border Eastern European theater, there are issues tied to East Asia and containment of China, and management of China relations. There is the reality that they can’t stabilize and rebuild Syria on their own, even though they want to have a presence there and they also want to continue to have a lasting role in the Gulf. All of these are things where they do need, at some point, to have the U.S. on board.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
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