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Move Unlikely to Endanger Assad Rule -- WSJ

8 Apr 2017 6:32 am
By Yaroslav Trofimov 

LONDON -- It's not 2013 anymore, and striking the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad today carries fewer consequences than when the Obama administration ignored its own "red line" on Damascus's use of chemical weapons.

This time around, thanks to solid Russian support, the Assad regime isn't under serious threat. As a result, there is no "you break it, you own it" risk to consider. President Donald Trump, in ordering Friday morning's missile launch to retaliate for a sarin gas attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, didn't have to contemplate how the U.S. would handle a resulting vacuum in Damascus.

In a way, that's also why the countries that long pushed for a U.S. intervention against Mr. Assad -- from Saudi Arabia to Turkey to France -- aren't cheering as loudly now. The criticism, from Russia and other Syrian allies, is also relatively muted. The American strike, while an "act of aggression," was merely "ritual," Russian lawmaker Dmitri Sablin said. Michael Fallon, the British defense secretary, described the attack as "very limited, very appropriate, and very narrowly focused."

Of course, this new escalation of the long-running Syrian war can still spin out of control. In the short term, it's likely to affect the U.S. ability to pursue its separate military campaign against Islamic State in eastern Syria and could provoke far more serious friction with Moscow.

But if Friday's strike on Syria's Shayrat air base is a one-off rather than a prelude to a larger campaign, as appears to be the case for now, it won't alter the balance of power in a war the Assad regime looks increasingly likely to win.

That wasn't the case four years ago. After Damascus fired rockets carrying chemical weapons into a rebel-controlled suburb of Damascus in August 2013, President Barack Obama, together with Britain and France, was on the verge of unleashing a massive air campaign that would have destroyed Syrian air defenses and crippled the regime's air force.

At the time, Syrian rebels ranging from secular militias to the jihadists of the future Islamic State were advancing on several fronts. Air power was indispensable for the regime's survival. It allowed Mr. Assad to blunt rebel offensives and disrupt rebel supply lines. By attacking civilians in rebel areas from the air, he could also provoke a refugee exodus, depopulating the uprising's main strongholds.

The prospect of precipitating a collapse of the Assad regime when no clear alternative was available, and when jihadist elements were on the rise, was one of the reasons the Obama administration ended up aborting the planned air strikes in favor of a Russia-brokered deal meant to dismantle the regime's chemical-weapons capability.

The military situation in Syria is completely different now. The war's tide has turned in the regime's favor over the past year, largely thanks to relentless bombing by the Russian air force.

The Assad regime has recaptured the rebel-held half of Syria's largest city of Aleppo, and regained several other areas around the country. Moderate rebels backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia are at their weakest point since the war began, in part because the regime and the Syrian Kurdish militias have started cooperating against them.

It is Russian warplanes that carry out the bulk of sorties against the rebels. Syrian planes of the kind destroyed by U.S. Tomahawks on Friday now play a largely auxiliary role in the Russian effort. For obvious reasons, the U.S. can't target these Russian aircraft or installations, and went out of its way to ensure there were no Russian casualties in Friday's attack.

The presence of Russian planes and sophisticated air-defense systems is also a key reason why the U.S. -- faced with the risk of aircraft being shot down -- had to use missiles rather than jets for the strike on Shayrat. It's a limitation that's not going away -- and that would make the kind of air campaign contemplated in 2013 impossible today.

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at yaroslav.trofimov@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 08, 2017 02:32 ET (06:32 GMT)

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