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If U.S. Attacks Syria, ‘Russia Would Stay on the Sidelines,’ Analyst Says

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry at a meeting at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 9. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

While U.S. officials appear to be building a case for possible military intervention in Syria, Russia is taking a backseat for now and letting the responsibility for any military strikes fall on the United States and its Western allies, said public policy analyst Dimitri Simes.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that a chemical weapon attack last week in Syria was perpetrated by the regime and was a “moral obscenity” that “should shock the conscience” of the world.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel followed up in a BBC interview, saying the U.S. military is “ready to go” with “whatever option the president wishes to take.” And he’s been coordinating with Western allies on a response to the chemical attack.

Simes, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for the National Interest, said a U.S.-led attack, most likely precision missile strikes on Syrian targets, seems imminent unless U.N. inspectors investigating the chemical weapon sites in Syria find that the chemical agents weren’t the type that Syrian forces are known to have, or that the poisonous gasses were delivered by the rebel side. Those definitive findings seem highly unlikely, he added.
But if the United States does move forward with military action, “Russia would stay on the sidelines,” said Simes. “Russia does not intend to become a part of the hostilities at this point.”

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that Moscow had no plans to be drawn into a military intervention in Syria and that the “use of force without the approval of the United Nations Security Council is a very grave violation of international law.” Russia supplies arms to the Syrian government and has a naval facility in the Syrian port city of Tartus.

It could be a different story if Russians now living in Syria were harmed, said Simes. There are about 30,000 to 40,000 mostly Russian women who have married Syrian natives, and their children living in the troubled Middle Eastern country, he said. If the rebels were to retaliate against them, Russia would feel compelled to act against the rebels, he added.

Russia also likely wouldn’t strike back if there were some sort of targeted attack against the Syrian regime, but in the long run, there could be some security implications, Simes continued. It could lead to closer Russian cooperation with China and Iran, along the lines of helping bolster Iranian defenses against possible U.S. military action there, and possibly the degradation of joint counterterrorism efforts with the U.S.

Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior research analyst and the Syria team lead at the Institute for the Study of War, said since the United States has already committed itself to aiding the opposition through nonlethal means and some military assistance, any U.S. military action is likely to be a specific response to the use of chemical weapons rather than a broad-scale attack on the Syrian military aimed at benefitting the rebels. The narrow military action could include ship-launched Tomahawk missiles targeting Syria’s weapons delivery systems or known chemical weapons facilities, she said.

The biggest role Russia plays in the Syria conflict is in the United Nations, said O’Bagy. The legal justification for any sort of attack on Syria would be harder for the United States to make if Russia takes a stance against it, she said.

In addition, Russia has been working in concert with the United States on trying to find a political solution to Syria’s civil war. A possible U.S.-led military strike would complicate those efforts, O’Bagy said.

Recent developments in Syria led U.S. officials, including Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, to postpone a meeting with a Russian delegation that was supposed to take place on Wednesday in The Hague. The purpose of the meeting was to plan a conference aimed at finding a peaceful resolution in Syria.

Related Resources

  • PBS NewsHour senior correspondent Judy Woodruff discussed U.S. options in Syria with Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations and Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Monday:

On Tuesday’s PBS NewsHour, senior correspondent Margaret Warner will discuss the latest Syria developments. View all of our Syria coverage.

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