Stopping Assad requires standing up to Moscow

Molly K. McKew writes: As U.S. Tomahawk missiles soared over the Mediterranean toward Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase, speculation was already flying about how the attack would affect the thaw in U.S.-Russia relations anticipated since Donald Trump took office. Was this a first sign that America’s new president was willing to stand up to Putin?

Arguably the more critical factor in the equation is Russia. To understand the Kremlin’s response to the U.S. strike, and to the preceding chemical attack in Syria, it’s important to face some brutal truths about Russia in Syria.

The U.S. warned Russian forces about the coming strike because we knew they were there. We knew Russians were at Shayrat airbase since at least November 2015. This is why Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that this strike was “on the brink of combat clashes with Russia”: We were bombing a base from which he knew Russian forces guided operations.

In August 2015—well before the Kremlin announced its new Syrian campaign — Russia signed a comprehensive military agreement with Assad. This agreement gave Moscow virtual carte blanche in Syria, and gave Syria a status equivalent to occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia rather than to other sovereign nations where Russian forces are housed.

Russian commanders coordinate the military strategy in Syria, and have been critical to reversing the course of the war against Assad. Russian forces coordinate all aspects of Syrian air power and airstrikes. They reinforced the infrastructure of Shayrat airbase—which supposedly had its chemical stockpiles removed in 2013. There is no chance that, in the course of reconstructing elements of the base, they were not made aware that there were chemical munitions present. [Continue reading…]

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