On the evening of 7 April 2018, the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma was subjected to an apparent chemical weapons attack. Military strikes by the U.S. and its Western allies seem imminent, now that Russia and the P3 – the U.S., the United Kingdom, and France – have failed to agree on a mechanism at the UN Security Council, and given U.S. President Donald Trump’s explicit warning.
Any military action in Syria inevitably will present significant risks of unintended escalation, especially given deepened involvement by several foreign actors.
As such, Crisis Group is raising the threat level of the Trigger List’s Syria flashpoints – in the Golan Heights, al-Tanf, and the Middle Euphrates River Valley – from Severe to Critical. Given the risk of the spillover of tensions, we are also raising the threat level in Lebanon from Moderate to Substantial.
Critical is the highest level on our threat assessment scale, indicating a direct or indirect military confrontation between Iran and the U.S. and/or their respective allies is expected imminently.
An attack by the U.S. and its allies risks hitting Russian and Iranian personnel commingled with their Syrian partners, triggering a broader confrontation. Russia has suggested it would respond. Even a strike that avoided doing so could be misread by Moscow or Tehran as designed to achieve more substantial goals, particularly given the Trump administration’s hostile rhetoric against Iran and its increasingly likely withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on 12 May. The U.S. and its allies are unlikely to be the only or even main targets of retaliation by the Syrian government and its backers. Military action could provoke intensified bombing by the Syrian government and Russia against opposition-held areas. It could also jeopardise local ceasefire arrangements, including the tenuous “de-escalation” in south-western Syria jointly negotiated by the U.S., Russia, and Jordan. An escalation in Syria may also provoke escalations elsewhere in the region, either against the U.S. or its allies.
U.S.-led strikes are necessarily risky, but those risks could potentially be mitigated through effective messaging and the careful definition of narrow deterrent purposes. Limited strikes, advance warning and communication of U.S. aims to Moscow and via Moscow to Tehran are unlikely to have the desired deterrent effect, but may avoid retaliation by Russia and Iran and a broader, unchecked military escalation.
Crisis Group was founded in 1995 – in response to the horrors of Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia – to alert the world to potential conflicts before they spiral out of control