Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Does the U.S. Attack in Syria Risk a Regional War?

Filed under: Hizbullah, Iran, Russia, Syria, The Middle East, U.S. Policy

Does the U.S. Attack in Syria Risk a Regional War?

Commentators in the Arab world fail to find a logical explanation for the behavior of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his decision to use chemical weapons against rebels in the Idlib region.

According to them, this was a mistaken, unnecessary decision: Bashar Assad’s forces in the region are not in distress, the Khan Sheikhoun area has no strategic importance, and it seems that this was an unnecessary military adventure. It was clear that such a move would arouse the anger of the international community and perhaps even lead to a military response against him, but Assad nevertheless undertook it.

The Syrian move led to an American military response that created a crisis between the superpowers that has no end in sight.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s planned visit to Moscow this week has not been canceled. He is scheduled to meet President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to try to reach understandings that will contain the crisis, after Russia warned that the U.S. attack in Syria would have very dangerous consequences.

The United States wanted to send a message to President Bashar Assad, to Iran, and to North Korea via its attack in Syria. The message had the intended effect, but the attack will have implications for the situation in Syria and, perhaps also in Turkey, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe.

The U.S. attack on the Syrian airport was not surprising. President Trump hinted that he was considering a military option, and Syria and Russia were, accordingly, prepared.

On April 8, the newspaper Rai al-Yawm reported that two days before the American attack, Syria transferred aircraft from the T-4 military base to the Russian base at Latakia, protected by Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft system, so that they would not be attacked by the United States.

The Situation in Syria Is Complicated

Russia and Syria are angry about the American attack. Syria denies any connection to the chemical attack in Idlib and is preparing for further confrontation with the United States.

Russia has suspended its understandings with the United States regarding coordination of flights in Syrian airspace, which could cause possible aerial incidents between the air forces of the two countries.

Syria is threatening revenge and Hizbullah is also threatening Washington that the attack will have dangerous consequences for American interests in the Middle East.

The Middle East stands on the verge of a volcano, and meanwhile President Trump has emerged as a great winner in the eyes of the Americans and Western countries. But the situation may get complicated. President Assad is known as stubborn and vengeful, and Russian President Putin will not easily forgive this blow to his honor and wants to prove that he, and not Trump, is the strongest leader in the world.

The moderate Sunni axis welcomed the American attack, apart from Egypt, which maintained a neutral stance and called on Russia and the United States to contain the crisis and not to escalate it.

The Syrian opposition also welcomed the American attack and called for its expansion to other Syrian airports and the establishment of a no-fly zone to prevent the continued bombing of its forces by the Syrian air force.

In fact, the American attack on Syria and the chemical massacre perpetrated by Assad buried until further notice any possibility of negotiations in Geneva in an attempt to find a political settlement in Syria.

Perhaps this was what President Assad intended when he initiated the chemical attack on the rebels. Assad has openly stated on several occasions that only a military solution will defeat the rebels and restore his control over all parts of Syria.

Assad feels confident, supported by Russia, Iran and Hizbullah. He has military achievements on the ground and, despite the American attack, he intends to continue fighting against the rebels and to rely on Russia to deter the U.S.

The Impact on Israel

Israel endorsed the American attack and the fact that President Trump has taken a stand against the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah “axis of evil” and has even taken military steps against Syria.

However, Russia has announced that it will strengthen Syria’s aerial defenses. This development could be dangerous to Israel if Syria, for example, receives air defense systems of the S-400 type that could endanger the Israeli air force, which occasionally operates in the skies of Syria.

It is also not clear how the existing understandings between Israel and Russia on flights through Syrian airspace will be affected.

The suspension of understandings between Russia and the United States regarding flights through Syria’s airspace following the American attack is a dangerous precedent that could also affect the understandings between Israel and Russia.

President Putin’s rebuke to Prime Minister Netanyahu, that he took sides and supported the American position on the chemical attack in Idlib without waiting for an international investigation, is a worrying sign that could impact on continued military coordination between Israel and Russia over the situation in Syria and Israel’s demand that Russia not allow Iran to hold onto Syria.

On April 8, the newspaper Rai al-Yawm reported that Syria, Iran, and Hizbullah considered attacking Israel and opening an all-out front if American attacks in Syria continued. They also reportedly weighed attacking U.S. targets in the Gulf. In other words, the risk of a regional war erupting was heightened.

The U.S. made it clear that the attack in Syria was a one-time move, designed to convey the message to Assad about the prohibited use of chemical weapons against civilians. However, the U.S. intends to sharpen the message, as the U.S. Treasury Secretary recently announced, by imposing additional economic sanctions on the Syrian regime.

The Syrians are trying to link Israel to the American attack. Syria’s deputy foreign minister claimed that the attack followed the Israeli failure in Syria.

President Trump proved with the military attack in Syria that he is adopting the positions of Israel and the moderate Sunni Arab states in connection with the danger posed by the “axis of evil.”

The Sunni states are pleased that the new U.S. president is standing by them after what they viewed as a betrayal by former President Barack Obama, which strengthened Iran even more by his signing of the nuclear agreement.

President Trump has changed that direction. Until Assad’s chemical attack on the rebels, Trump focused mainly on the war against ISIS. After the attack, Trump understood how dangerous Bashar Assad is and might act to change his policy and topple the Assad regime.

These developments are dangerous and further complicate the war in Syria. They could become a snowball that has the potential to turn into a regional war. Israel must proceed with great caution.