Targeting the Syrian regime, the United States, France and Britain launched air strikes on Syria early Saturday over a recent chemical attack in Douma — located northwest of the capital Damascus — that led to the death of 40 people.
This is not the first time the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad has faced Western accusations that it used chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, though this latest action by the US is widely believed to be the latest manifestation of a clash of wills between the US and Russia.
Russia has been diplomatically and militarily backing Al-Assad since the 2011 anti-regime uprising turned into a civil war, continuously blocking all scenarios and attempts that could have led to a collapse of the regime.
Syria has historically been a key ally of the Russians: even the challenges — on all levels — that Russia faced in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse did not lead Damascus to reconsider this alliance.
The Syrian war provided Russia with an opportunity to show its military capabilities, the sophistication of Russian-made weaponry — which are among the world’s top five arms exports — and prove itself as a key party and player in the ongoing conflict.
As the aerial strikes look to be limited in scale, Russia is seemingly confident that they will not lead to a military escalation.
The Russians cannot even claim that they were surprised about the strike. On Thursday, the Kremlin announced that a crisis communications line with the United States is in place to avoid a clash of troops in Syria.
“The line is used and it is active. In general, the line is used by both sides," Reuters quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying to reporters, responding to a question on whether the so-called deconfliction line between the Russian and US armies was used to avoid Russian casualties.
The United States is certainly uncomfortable with Russia’s success in helping Al-Assad stay in power, as well as the alleged use of chemical weapons by the latter despite Washington’s continuous warnings against such action.
Investigators from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are currently working in Syria to provide a final report on who actually committed the chemical attack.
However, the administration of US President Donald Trump is insistent that the attack was by Al-Assad.
On 20 August 2012, then-US President Barack Obama’s administration described the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a “red line.” However, chemical weapons were used in Syria one year later, leading to the deaths of 1,500 civilians near Damascus.
At the time, the US Congress rejected a request by Obama’s administration to launch a military strike against the Syrian regime.
Nevertheless, Congress did approve a plan by Obama for arming the Syrian opposition and launching air strikes against the Daesh terrorist group in Syria and Iraq in cooperation with an international coalition that included several Arab states.
So, Saturday’s strikes are seemingly nothing but an attempt by the US to project an image that it has influence over developments in the Syrian conflict.
After today’s strike, US Defense Secretary James Mattis said that “right now this is a one-time shot.”
"We were very precise and proportionate," Mattis said. "But at the same time, it was a heavy strike."