Russia Has Few Options for Syria Response

Updated on April 16, 2018

Immediately following Friday's attack by the US and its allies on Syrian military sites, Russia claimed that it had successfully shot down close to 70% of the cruise missiles fired. This claim is contradicted by the Pentagon, who announced that they did not suffer Russian interference or associated losses, and that all missiles hit their targets.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin labeled the attack "an act of aggression" and quickly pushed for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. He is now warning of coming recourse from the hostile state. Despite the dangerous and egregious claim that the strike has triggered WW3 (similar claims followed last years strike), Russia has relatively few choices in retaliation.

What The Heck's A World War

When examining the potential Russian response, it's important to understand that in 2018, a "world war" is increasingly difficult to define. The era of million man armies marching across continents is long over. Next generation stealth-equipped computer-controlled weaponry now dominates the modern arsenal, and precision targeting systems enabled by global satellite technology is making strikes like the one Friday ever easier. Nuclear arms have also permanently changed the game. In the early days of the Cold War (which, for all intents and purposes, could have been considered a "world war" for it's global scale), their was little communication between the USA and the USSR. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 saw the establishment of a hotline between Washington and Moscow to ensure a superpower standoff would be avoided in the future

The War on Terror is another potential "world war" for involving a great many nations spanned across the world. The early days of the War on Terror saw the US and its allies fighting Islamic terrorism mostly in the Middle East. Conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Libya, while difficult to win entirely, were straightforward in that it was the might of America against a group of non-state or rogue state combatants.

Syria was once such conflict. The uprising began in 2011 against the Presidency of Bashar al-Assad and by early 2015, with the assistance of US-led airstrikes and supplies, the rebellion had pushed loyalist forces from much of northern and southern Syria. In response, al-Assad turned to Russia for assistance, who immediately dispatched military forces to "counter ISIS." This has led to the complex proxy war that is now Syria.

Syria in 2015, shortly before Russian intervention.
Syria in 2015, shortly before Russian intervention.

Muted Military

Anyone who now floats the possibility that Russia will directly confront the United States or its allies in a military capacity should be dismissed. Vladimir Putin, while brazen, is no fool. He readily recognizes that not only would this pit his lesser military against the strength of the US and NATO, but that the nuclear arsenal of both sides would ensure mutually assured destruction.

The performance Friday was predictably coordinated. Despite the conflicting interests of the two sides, neither is actually seeking confrontation. Russia cooperated by relocating Russian military personnel when they received advanced warning of the incoming attack last April. This time seems similar, despite the words of Russian leaders. Again, Putin is acutely aware that directly hitting the US-led alliance would end in complete disaster for all Russian forces in Syria.

The boldest attacks on Syria has been from it's nearby neighbor: Israel. Since the beginning of 2018, Israeli air strikes have hit various Syrian and Iranian military sites across the country. These strikes, despite being far more frequent and destructive, and having caused multiple causalities for Syria and its allies, they have received little Russian response.


Russia has also failed to sway the UN Security Council, after their condemnation resolution was rejected. Both Russia and the US are permanent members, making the vote mostly symbolic, but it helps Russia to legitimize it's strategy on an international platform. US Ambassador to the UN stated that we “gave diplomacy chance after chance after chance,” and that Friday's bombings were “justified, legitimate and proportionate.” France and the UK, who assisted the US in the strikes, also hold permanent seats on the Security Council.

How the UN Security Council Voted
How the UN Security Council Voted

Hacked

Despite the unlikelihood that Friday will lead to World War 3, Russia still has methods of retaliation. As we've seen the greatest threat from Russia now lies in their covert ability to influence foreign democracies.

For the past decade or so Russia has been bolstering their cyber warfare capabilities. Initially targeting Eastern European border countries, Russia began targeting Western powers in 2015. These cyber attacks culminated with Russia's 2016 election interference.

Russia has shown they have the capacity to launch attacks on what appears to be sophisticated government networks, including their 2015 hit on the State Department. This spells trouble for the US, as it allows enemies to gain control of critical systems and leverage their smaller conventional military capabilities.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning that Russian attacks on electric and airport infrastructure was already underway and that hundreds or thousands of Russian sponsored cyber attacks were being undertaken daily.

In response to Friday's strike on Syria, Russia could very well amplify their attacks on US networks, knowing full well this is the US is weak spot. The upcoming 2018 midterm elections give Russian hackers prime targets to influence as payback. Whatever their response, it's highly unlikely Russia will not take action in the coming weeks and months.

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