Syria and Russia trapped by Assad?

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

The US missile strike on the Syrian base of Shayrat has given Moscow its first real lesson about the personality and leadership of President Trump. The strike fulfils Russians’ worst fears by showing that:

(1) Trump is versatile. One day he hints that President Assad might be used as an interlocutor in finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict; the next day he rushes to a dramatic military response to an irresponsible chemical attack on civilians.

(2) Not only he does disregard international law (and act without UN backing for military intervention in a sovereign state) but he even disregards America’s own rules (Congress was not informed until two days later).

(3) He is dangerously prone to act on emotion. Witness his speech justifying the US strike, in which he emphasised the terrible image of people affected by gas, especially “beautiful babies”. White House insiders claim that he took his decision on his own, on seeing pictures from Idlib.

(4) He acts without a middle, or even short- term strategy, leading from point A (a prompt military strike) to point B (a military defeat of Assad) which is the only way to reach a political solution without involving president Assad or one of his clan).

A US-Russia honeymoon which never took off

As the Russians see it, the world has finally discovered that for all his efforts to appear as an outsider and a isolationist, Trump is very much an interventionist Republican on the line of George Bush, under the influence of a military establishment which prefers force to diplomacy, and does not care much about international rules.

They also point out that in the current situation involving America, military influence is not sufficiently balanced by political input, because of the number of vacant posts in the administration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, himself a new man in the diplomatic field, has a particularly hard job working with an understaffed State Department.

Top questions

With all this in mind, a series of questions have come to top the attention of Russian experts:

(1) Have we seen a ‘one-off’ shot intended to demonstrate that chemical weapons are a red line, and that Trump is not Obama when it comes to action?

(2) Have we seen an end of any attempt to fulfill electoral promises about working with Russia on fighting international terrorism?

(3) Is the rallying of Western political leaders’ approval of the missile strike by a president they have been deriding since his election, a momentous move in favour of a larger co-operation? Or is it the prelude to a new “Western front” which will divide the world, replacing the old Cold War, as China assumes a growing geopolitical role (something which can only be reinforced by the sending of a US nuclear ship to the Korean peninsula)?

(4) Will the Kremlin abstain or not from reactions so strong that they will lead to an escalation?

The common enemy

For the moment, the Kremlin has no interest in doing anything more before the planned meeting with Secretary of State Tillerson. Condemnations will continue, as will demands for a truly independent inquiry into the chemical attack; also criticism of “adventurism” or “arrogance”, and attempts to capitalise on Western declarations stating that while understanding Trump’s military move, only a political solution can end the war in Syria.

Recent terrorist attacks in Saint Petersburg and Stockholm will also allow Russia to come back with the notion of “fighting the common enemy”.

But they are as reluctant as ever to throw doubt publicly on their support to Assad, who, according to Europeans who have met him recently, radiates confidence he will prevail militarily (as he has done almost seven years now). Nor do the Russians see anything but diplomatic amateurism in the idea of Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to enroll the G7 in a request to Russia to withdraw its troops from Syria.

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