The unpredictability in US-Russia relations
Cast your mind back a month, and you may recall that the Kremlin was saying Russia-US relations were at their “worst since the Cold War.” Russian and American leaders appeared with furrowed brows. Tensions had “soared” over US President Donald Trump’s decision to launch 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base on April 6, as punishment for the Syrian regime’s reported use of chemical weapons.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry also railed against US foreign policy positions on North Korea and elsewhere. Trump described relations as at “an all-time low,” and that “right now we’re not getting along with Russia at all.”
The US and its allies ramped up their rhetoric both on Russia and the Syrian regime. Trump said President Bashar Assad “had crossed a lot of lines.” The never-knowingly-understated British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson fumed that “Assad is the biggest terrorist of all.” Russia cast its eighth veto since the start of the Syrian crisis to a resolution calling for an investigation into the chemical weapons attack.
All this suggested that a huge face-off was in the pipeline. If this was the Cold War, perhaps a few diplomats would be expelled, more than a few sabers rattled and at least some extra sanctions imposed. Yet it only took a few days for everything to return to the pre-April calm.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Moscow and met with President Vladimir Putin. Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was courted by Trump in the Oval Office in an all-smiles meeting, a rare tribute for a foreign minister — done, we are told, as a favor to Putin after a warm phone call with Trump.
All this happened a day after FBI Director James Comey had been fired by Trump. The Kremlin described the conversation as “extremely positive.” Trump said it was “very, very good.”
How did such a stunning rapprochement come about? Perhaps it was extraordinary first-class diplomacy by the newbie diplomat Tillerson. Maybe relations are still extremely poor. Yet the lingering suspicion is that for Trump and Putin, this was a mutually beneficial exercise.
Trump adores being unpredictable, and on the Russia, Syria and Iran files he will remain so.
The US strikes were a one-off, repeatable only if there was another major chemical weapons attack. Russia had been warned that Shayrat air base would be hit, so it moved its military out. Within 24 hours, the Syrian regime was using the air base again. Various claims were made by the Pentagon about how much of the Syrian air force had been destroyed, but with no evidence. Is it too much of a stretch to claim that Moscow was not nearly as upset about the strikes as was made out?
Trump certainly benefited domestically and even diplomatically. He portrayed himself as tough and a decision-maker, always happiest contrasting himself to his predecessor Barack Obama, who famously did not act when his “red line” on chemical weapons was breached in 2013. The accusations that Trump was a poodle to Russian interests appeared obsolete. It distracted the media and public from the probe into Russian interference in the US elections.
Likewise, Putin is rarely averse to a bit of America-bashing to shore up his support base. What is the point of a friend in the White House if he is seen as weak and ineffective? So letting Trump flex his military muscle was acceptable. The April 6 strikes appear to be a brief detour rather than a genuine road-sign as to Trump’s future international policy. Trump will still try to engage with Putin, and does not want to get involved in the Syrian conflict except to crush Daesh. The military support being given to the Kurds is a further sign of this.
Trump is relaxed about Russia determining the outcome in Syria, including Assad’s fate. The US will remain a semi-bystander, an observer, as it was at the Astana talks. Trump will maintain his anti-Iran position, but for Putin this is welcome if it means the US will help him restrict Tehran’s ambitions in Syria.
Trump did not morph into an arch-interventionist and warmonger. He remains, like Obama, averse to military interventions in the Middle East. Appearing tough is key to Trump, hence his powerful signal to states such as Iran and North Korea by using the Mother Of All Bombs in Afghanistan a week later.
The Syrian regime was barely dented. Before the strikes, its independence was already massively constricted, hostage to its foreign backers Russia and Iran. The likelihood is that it still retains chemical weapons such as sarin.
The April 6 strikes were a classic Trump spectacle, a firework show, smoke and mirrors for his reality TV-loving supporters. If you think this is an extreme interpretation, consider how US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross described the attack on Syria: “After-dinner entertainment” for Trump’s guests dining at his Mar-a-Lago club, including Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump adores being unpredictable, and on the Russia, Syria and Iran files he will remain so.
• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.