Tension between the United States and Russia is once again on the rise. In the wake of a limited U.S. strike on Syria, in which two U.S. Navy destroyers fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat air base in western Homs on April 6, the Kremlin pulled a 2015 agreement with Washington designed to avoid military collisions in Syrian airspace. The attack will raise the stakes of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's approaching visit to Moscow on April 11-12.
Since 2013, Russia has been trying to use the Syrian civil war as leverage in its negotiations with the United States on other issues, but so far its strategy hasn't yielded many results. Though Washington notified Moscow prior to the attack in order to avoid drawing the Russians into the clash, the Kremlin will use the heightened risk of U.S.-Russia entanglements on the battlefield to try to bring the White House back to the negotiating table. Nevertheless, the current geopolitical climate is hardly conducive to a bargain between the two. In fact, at least in the short term, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has an incentive to adopt a harder stance toward Russia in hopes of deflecting the political pressure stemming from an ongoing probe into the Trump team's ties to Moscow.
The added danger of clashing with Russia won't halt U.S. operations in Syria, but it will certainly complicate them. Washington is gearing up to launch an offensive on the Islamic State's stronghold in Raqqa, a mission that could get sidetracked if Russian aircraft fly over the area. U.S. aircraft would have to take steps to avoid them, whether by changing course or aborting the mission. At worst, the Russians could also drop bombs near U.S. targets, forcing Washington to respond by shooting down Russian aircraft — triggering a much larger flare-up between the two powers. Moscow could try to escalate conflicts elsewhere as well, including in eastern Ukraine, to try to improve its bargaining position with Washington. But this tactic may also run the risk of further souring the prospects of negotiation.
In the meantime, Turkey — whose forces have been boxed in by the United States and Russia in northern Syria — will take the opportunity to try to pull Washington deeper into the fight against Damascus. To that end, Ankara will push its proposals for the establishment of a no-fly zone and the expansion of existing safe zones in the country. All the while, Israel will be watching closely to see whether Russia boosts Syria's air defenses, a move that would complicate Israeli operations against Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in Syria.
Of course, the Trump administration's quick and decisive action in Syria was also designed to send a message to observers beyond the Middle East. As the threat of North Korean nuclearization grows, the move was meant to give Beijing and Pyongyang pause. The White House has already threatened to take unilateral action against North Korea, and the recent attack in Syria gives a glimpse of just how it intends to build up a credible military threat to Pyongyang.