What we have, at some level, is a demonstration of force that arguably might help deter others from using chemical weapons, and arguably might deter Assad – but it’s about the lightest retaliation Assad could have expected from a military strike so, at that level, it would be a calculated risk. But yes, the strike was composed largely as a demonstration, and not as any sort of game changer.
Whatever scheming or plotting occurred before the decision to launch a gas attack, it is difficult to believe that Russians would not have been aware of Syrian actions. It’s difficult under the circumstances to believe that they wouldn’t have been informed in advance but, even if they were not, it’s difficult to believe that Russians at the air base would not have identified unusual activity leading up to the launch. Even if Assad was convinced that a gas attack launched without Russian approval would not affect Russia’s position in the overall conflict, it’s difficult for me to believe that he hasn’t noticed that a lot of people who cross Putin end up dead under questionable circumstances.
Russia may have seen this as an opportunity to take the measure of Trump as Commander in Chief. Would he stick to his old rhetoric, that no retaliatory bombing should occur? Would he launch a more significant action and, if so, would it be largely symbolic or something more aggressive? Would Trump reveal a larger plan for the region, or the lack of a plan for either the conflict or the region? Would the U.S. act while taking care to avoid harm to Russian forces? If Putin gave the green light for the gas attack in order to assess Trump, he got a lot of information about what he can expect from Trump. The cost? If there ever is a negotiated end to the conflict, Assad has to go… but is there any reason Russia would care about keeping Assad in power in such a circumstance? It seems to me that their long-term goals would be better advanced by replacing him with somebody who is less likely to make the same sort of mistakes that led his nation into this civil war.
Had Trump not acted, he would have been criticised as weak, even from within his own party. As it stands, even with the strike, he’s not exactly striking fear into the hearts of the world’s tyrants. The message to North Korea would seem to be that, despite the strong words and suggestion of possible military action, the U.S. is not likely to take any action that poses a significant risk to either U.S. forces or to civilians.
Meanwhile, the bombing gives Russia the opportunity to distance itself from U.S. efforts, which are primarily directed at ISIS, and likely thereby to help Syria target non-ISIS resistance forces. If they succeed in that hard-to-deny effort to eliminate any third parties from play, such that the outcome of the conflict turns on choosing between Assad (or his successor) or ISIS, he knows that the world is all-but-certain to (once again) identify ISIS as the less acceptable party.
It is likely that Trump will experience a short-term boost in the opinion polls, because that’s the way political opinion in this country rolls. Will it have a long-term effect, or help Trump with his legislative agenda? I very much doubt it. To the extent that Putin’s fingerprints are on Syria’s actions, I personally see no reason to believe that Putin wants to help Trump.