The recent U.S. cruise missile attack in Syria disrupted—at least for the near term—any prospect of a “reset” in the U.S.-Russia relationship and brought into sharp focus the incompatibility of Washington’s interests in Syria with those of Moscow. For Russia, Syria represents one of two pillars of its strategy in the Middle East, the other being Iran. Moscow has staked its regional strategy on an alliance with these two states as counterweights to the U.S.-aligned Sunni regimes that dominate most of the region. Syria is of particular importance in this strategy because it hosts naval and air bases that enable a Russian military presence in the Levant and the Mediterranean. This presence is important to Russia for military reasons and because it demonstrates Moscow’s revival as an important player on the global stage.
Recent reports of a sarin gas attack against the Syrian civilian population in the rebel-held province of Idlib has the world, rightfully, horrified. With political leaders around the world loudly condemning the targeting of civilians and the reliance on internationally proscribed weapons, the international debate echoes the tones of the aftermath of the brutal August 2013 sarin attack against the opposition-controlled Ghouta suburb, in the outskirts of Damascus.