Will the US hit Syrian targets under Russian protection?

Syria's chemical weapons facilities lie under the umbrella of Russia's air defenses, which Russia has threatened to use against US missile strikes.

  • President Donald Trump is said to have nailed down eight potential targets to strike in Syria, including two airfields, a research facility, and a chemical weapons facility, according to a CNBC report.
  • It's possible the locations lie far from Russian forces in the region and therefore would carry a low risk of escalating tensions with Russia — but the White House has indicated it's not afraid to target Russian assets.
  • Any strike on Syria, Russia's ally, runs the risk triggering a massive Russian response that could lead to war between the world's biggest nuclear powers.

As President Donald Trump has cryptically hinted at looming action on Syria, a new report says he may have nailed down eight potential locations to strike.

Citing an unnamed source, CNBC reported on Thursday that the US had selected eight possible targets in Syria, including two airfields, a research facility, and a chemical weapons facility.

Such a strike would amount to punitive action against Syria for what the US and its allies consider a blatant use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. But it would still carry the risk of sparking a war with Russia.

Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at the geopolitical consulting firm Stratfor, told Business Insider that though Syria's chemical weapons facilities lay under the umbrella of Russia's air defenses, they were not actually close enough that a strike on the facilities would endanger Russian troops.

Russia has threatened to use its air defenses against US missile strikes, and Russian officials have threatened to counterattack if US missiles fly over Syria, potentially by attacking US Navy ships or submarines.

Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, told Business Insider that Russia had flown aircraft specializing in anti-submarine warfare to Syria. Russia has also moved its warships out of a naval base in Syria out of concern for their safety after Trump threatened strikes.

Russia operates out of airfields in Syria, but it's unclear whether the US would target those. Syria has moved most of its jets to bases with Russian protection for fear of a strike, the CNBC report said.

The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, indicated on Wednesday that the US wasn't afraid to target Russian assets in a strike on Syria. But a Russian newspaper reported that the US had been coordinating with Russia to avoid hitting its troops and would provide a list of targets before a strike to avoid escalating conflict between the world's two largest nuclear powers.

Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, urged the US on Thursday to avoid military action, saying the "immediate priority is to avert the danger of war."

Asked whether he was referring to a war between the US and Russia, Nebenzia said: "We cannot exclude any possibilities, unfortunately, because we saw messages that are coming from Washington — they were very bellicose. They know we are there. I wish there was dialect through the proper channels on this to avert any dangerous developments."

He added: "The danger of escalation is higher than simply Syria because our military are there … So the situation is very dangerous."

Trump is trying to punish Syria, not start World War 3

Several experts have told Business Insider that despite Russia's tough talk, Russian President Vladimir Putin does not want a war with the US.

"Putin is not interested in a shooting war with the West," Gorenburg said.

Gorenburg said that because a war could escalate into a nuclear conflict between the US and Russia, and because "the Russian conventional forces just aren't as strong as the US forces," such a fight "would not be a good outcome for Russia."

So far, Trump has played coy about the timing of a strike on Syria.

"We're looking very, very seriously, very closely at that whole situation, and we'll see what happens, folks," he said Thursday, adding that a strike could happen "fairly soon."

Meanwhile, France and the UK have been openly considering participating in a strike and sending forces to the region.

The US, with or without allies, has enough military presence across the Middle East to crush Russian forces in Syria — but a direct attack on Russian forces carries a risk of escalating a conflict into nuclear war.