The United States is expanding its goal in Syria to include the full withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria and the replacement of the current government in Damascus. A more assertive U.S. approach to the Syrian government and the Iranian presence in Syria is bound to lead to more friction between Moscow and Washington. Concerns about possible chemical weapons and refugees involved in an offensive in Idlib further limit the potential for the United States and Russia to reach an understanding.
Syria is a major battleground that has drawn in countries near and far. It currently remains a center of competition between the United States and Russia, as both nations pursue their own interests. And in terms of progress – or lack thereof – on cooperation, Syria serves as an indicator of the overall direction of the U.S.-Russia relationship.
Specifically, the United States is now striving for the full withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria and a transition from the current government in Damascus to one more acceptable to Washington. This is not the first time the United States has significantly altered its goals in Syria. At various points during the Syrian Civil War, the country has vacillated between two policies: one of actively working against the Syrian regime and one of focusing strictly on the defeat of violent extremist groups. This latest shift, however, will firmly dash any prospect of significant cooperation with Russia in the country. Moscow has taken an expansive approach to preserving its gains in Syria by establishing an equilibrium in the country – and that effort requires working with the U.S. government in a way that lends legitimacy to the Syrian government. Thus, a more aggressive U.S. approach to the Syrian government and Iran's presence in the country is bound to lead to more friction.
Complicating the dynamic between the United States and Russia in the country is the imminent Syrian loyalist offensive in Idlib province. Ever since the United States ended its CIA program to arm rebel forces in Syria last year, the United States has had very little influence or presence in Idlib. Still, two factors could drive a bigger U.S. response to the offensive on the province. The first is the threat of yet another massive spillover of refugees into Turkey – and from there, into Europe. Approximately 3 million more refugees could attempt to flee significant loyalist operations around Idlib, and the threat of this massive influx has not only strengthened Turkey’s resolve to oppose such an offensive but also elicited warnings from the United States and its European allies.
The second factor is the potential use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces. On numerous occasions, Damascus has resorted to the use of chemical weapons, including nerve agents, in its efforts to regain territory. And in two instances, this has prompted U.S.-led punitive military strikes. According to U.S. officials who have cited intelligence reports, Syrian President Bashar al Assad has approved the use of chlorine gas in the upcoming military operations in Idlib, The Wall Street Journal reported Sept. 9. While U.S. officials have said nothing about nerve agents (which has been a clear American red line), even the use of chlorine on a large scale would likely draw another U.S. punitive strike. Such a response is especially likely due to the high visibility of the Idlib situation and Washington's multiple warnings about chemical weapons use. Beyond the risky prospect that the strikes could escalate the conflict (particularly given the Russian and Iranian presence in the country), they would also make it more difficult for the United States and Russia to cooperate on a shared plan in Syria.
Russia's recent threats over the Al-Tanf garrison, an area in eastern Syria where the United States maintains a small number of troops alongside rebel forces, are one indicator of the deteriorating relationship between the two major powers. According to U.S. officials, the Russians have twice threatened to conduct military operations in the area over the last 10 days, prompting the U.S. military to warn against any such move and deploy Marine reinforcements to the area.
Unless Russia or the United States makes a significant miscalculation or causes a severe accident, it is unlikely that either will escalate their dispute in Syria to the point of active hostilities. After all, neither power is willing to run the risk of sparking a wider war over Syria. Still, the significant differences that are coming to the fore as the United States takes a more assertive stance on Iran and al Assad ensure that Moscow’s hopes of an agreement with Washington on Syria will not bear fruit.