US strike fallout: Syria’s future hangs in the balance

The next two or three days are going to be critical for the future of Syria and any conflict between the United States and Russia.

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In the wake of a US airstrike on a Syrian government airbase, in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians, tensions are high between the old Cold War enemies.

Dr Alexey Muraviev, the head of the department of social sciences and security studies at Curtin University, told SBS News US President Donald Trump had backed himself into a corner in terms of actions on Syria.

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“He found himself effectively trapped in this situation concerning allegations of chemical weapons being used in Idlib province because he had no choice but to act given the angry response in the West,” he said.

Dr Muraviev said the US had sided with the public anger inflamed by the media reporting of the chemical attack, “despite obvious risks associated with generating military action in the country which is protected – supported by Russia and Iran”.

“The Pentagon was at least trying to mitigate collateral damage and trying to avoid any open confrontation with Russia, so at this point in time I don’t see there’s going to an immediate escalation, but the political damage that such an action has delivered is very serious,” he said.

Dr Muraviev said Russia’s reaction against the air strikes – labeling it an aggression that was against international law – combined with Mr Trump’s declaration that Syrian leader Bashar al Assad must go, gave the US very few options.

“What it means, if we translate it from the diplomatic language, (is) that the United States will have to go in in force to see the Assad regime removed by force because there are no other ways how it can be achieved,” he said.

“Relying on Syrian opposition represents the least desirable option now because it’s been seriously weakened by Assad military successes on the ground with Russian and Iranian support.

“There are few options left for Trump to fulfill this promise that he made. [A] position of [a] no flying zone over Syria will put him in direct confrontation with Russia.

“[Or] deployment of US forces on the ground supported by NATO elements, which would put him in direct confrontation with Russia and Iran as well.

“Or effectively pretend that this declaration will be taken no further in terms of decisive action and then he would be accused of appeasing to Russia, appeasing to Putin and not being a man of his word. So it’s a very complex situation for Trump right now.”

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Dr Muraviev said the future also depended very much on the political will of the two presidents and their respective administrations to negotiate a solution.

“If the United States will not proceed with any further action, if there’s going to be dialogue which I’m sure is taking place now – not a public dialogue, but a closed door dialogue – this issue may be gradually defused,” he said.

“If Trump will be pressured to fulfill his promise to oust the regime of Bashar al Assad, well then the situation may escalate, because again there is the risk of running into direct confrontation with the Russians unless they would be able to strike some sort of a deal, a compromise.

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“Equally if Putin will order his troops on the ground in Syria in the area to effectively lock down Syrian airspace, denying access to the third party it would be a very powerful signal to the American, because it will mean if they try to take further action against Bashar al Assad they will be met with Russia’s deadly force there.

“It very much depends on calculations, on the will to negotiate on the will to either escalate or moderate and political pressures and public opinion and all other facts that further complicate this highly delicate, highly sensitive and highly volatile situation.”

Australia likely to get a call

Australia should also expect to receive a call from the Americans calling for us to play a greater role in Syria, he said.

“We need to understand that our elements, elements of Australian Defence Force are in the area,” Dr Muraviev said.

“We have been engaged in aerial operations over Syria and Iraq; our special force elements are on the ground; our aerial radar capabilities are deployed in the area; our intelligence gathering capabilities is deployed in the area.

“The call is likely to come to Canberra, but it is up to Canberra to make the final call about our role and place in this escalating conflict.”

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