US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Wednesday. The spike in Washington-Moscow tensions over Syria dominated the discussion and both sides looked for ways to try to de-escalate a situation which Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said last week has put them “one step away from war” and “totally ruined” relations.
Tillerson also declared bilateral relations to be at a low and signs of rising tensions include Moscow’s suspension of an agreement with Washington to share communications about US and Russian aircraft conducting missions over Syria. Moreover, the Admiral Grigorovich frigate warship has been dispatched from Crimea to the Syrian port of Tartus.
The ratcheting up of tensions between Moscow and Washington, following Donald Trump’s first major foray into a foreign conflict, has widened differences between him and Putin over the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad after they had seemed to be getting closer to an agreement to potentially bring an end to Syria’s six-year civil war that has left half a million people dead and triggered floods of refugees, while letting Assad stay in power. Rhetorically, at least, Trump appears to be moving away from the latter and last week called for the Syrian president to be ousted, a point confirmed this week by Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN.
Part of the reason why last week’s events, which saw US missile strikes targeted at the Shayrat air base following an earlier poison gas attack on citizens in a rebel-held town allegedly committed by the Damascus regime, were unexpected was Trump’s previous “America First” rhetoric which indicated he would not seek to deepen US involvement in Syria. Yet, US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Friday that the Trump administration was ready to take further military steps in the country if needed.
While last week’s missile strikes have also received relatively broad bipartisan support in Washington, Democrats have pointed to the inconsistency between the previous rhetoric of Trump compared to now, and also called for a more comprehensive, joined-up strategy to Syria. For instance, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has asked Trump to reverse course on his proposed ban on refugees coming to the United States from Syria asserting “we cannot speak in one breath of protecting Syrian babies [from chemical attacks] and in the next close American doors to them”.
Outside of the immediate Syrian context, the bigger strategic question for Trump and Putin is where this leaves prospects for a warming of relations based, in part, upon what had appeared to be mutual self regard. Trump had, before last week, given multiple indications that he believes Russia is not a serious threat to the United States, hinting in January that he could even drop economic sanctions if the country “is helpful”. Specifically, he appeared to believe there were multiple common interests over issues such as preventing Iran secure nuclear weapons, combating terrorism and potentially even helping contain China in a new global balance of power.
This proposed repositioning of relations with Russia now looks, at the least, to have been put on ice, and potentially to have been completely shattered. Here it is not only the fact that bilateral relations have become frostier over Syria, but also that the Trump team is under significant political pressure over investigations from both Congress and the FBI over its ties with Moscow before assuming power, and this issue has already claimed the scalp of national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Should Trump now ultimately reverse course on Russia from previous positions, it would bring him closer into line with defence secretary James Mattis and Tillerson who have both been forceful in criticism of Moscow. For instance, Tillerson said Friday that “either Russia has been complicit or simply incompetent” in Syria referring to Moscow’s apparent inability to prevent the Assad regime from using chemical weapons, despite a 2013 agreement, under which Russia was a guarantor, to remove these stockpiles from the country.
One other sign of the degree to which Trump may now be rapidly moving away from warmer relations with Russia came when he met for the first time on Wednesday with NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg in Washington. The president is being keenly watched, internationally, for how any shift in ties with Moscow may impact NATO having previously described the military alliance as “obsolete”, sending chills down the spines of states in eastern Europe.
Yesterday, however, Trump did a remarkable reversal of course saying that NATO is “no longer obsolete”. A big part of the reason for this volte face is Trump’s assessment of relations with Russia which he said on Wednesday “may be at an all-time low in terms of the relationship” having previously having had such high hopes for a different outcome given his now-cooled bromance with Putin.
Taken overall, the escalation of tensions in Syria is a further blow to Trump’s previously stated desire to seek Russian rapprochement. Indeed, the stand-off could yet derail, completely, this controversial initiative even before he and Putin have even had their first official face-to-face meeting.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics