One of my favorite Middle East experts, Jonathan Spyer has written an important article in The New Republic on April 15, 2018 with the title “The great distraction of punitive air-strikes” (https://www.meforum.org/articles/2018/the-great-distraction-of-punitive-airstrikes).
His main thesis is that these targeted and limited air strikes are part of a chess game being played by the Russians and the US and its allies not to tread on each other’s toes. It allows the Allies to boast that they have taken some action in Syria against the terrible evil of chemical weapons used against civilians, and it allows the Russians to grumble publicly that this is all a lie and a provocation. But, in fact nothing has really changed on the ground.
The hundreds of thousands of people killed will not change and further casualties can be expected, the humanitarian crisis in Syria has not changed, the expansion of Assad’s control of Syrian territory with Russian and Iranian help has not stopped. According to Spyer, the attack a few days before by the IAF on the T4 airfield in Syria that killed 7 Iranians, including a senior officer, was far more significant and worrying.
He sees this as an attempt by Israel to draw attention to the serious threat of Iranian forces in Syria who are preparing a forward position from which to attack Israel. Furthermore, with the announcement by Pres. Trump that the US intends to reduce and remove its forces from Syria in the near future (shades of Obama), signals to the Iranians and the Russians, that they will be able to move into the southern and eastern areas of Syria that are controlled by anti-Assad non-jihadi forces, and the northern Kurdish region of Afrin (taken from IS) that are controlled by pro-Western forces.
If this happens, i.e. US withdrawal and Iranian take-over of these regions, then Iran will have achieved a contiguous arc from the Iranian border to the Mediterranean coast, something they have been working for since the Khomeini revolution of 1979. This will pose a very serious military threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Since these are US allies it will be a serious loss to the US and result in both an expansion of Iranian and Russian influence in the region. Iranian control of Saudi oil could present a very serious threat to both Europe and the US.
There is a tenuous hope that Russia will not allow Iran to achieve such a dominant position in the Middle East. But it is vain to expect Russia under Putin to exercise a restraining influence if this results in a serious geopolitical loss for the US. So forget about the air strikes against supposed chemical weapons targets, they are a distraction, the future of the Middle East and perhaps of the world are truly at stake in Syria.