The cruise missile strike ordered on Syria by President Donald Trump in the early morning (local time) of April 7, 2017, was not really a military show of power. It did not devastate completely the Shayrat airbase, something that was no doubt intentional in light of the two-hour evacuation warning. Instead, the Tomahawks sent a very serious political message both to Bashar al-Assad, and particularly to Kim Jong-un, setting in motion new dynamics in US-Russian and Sino-American relations.
Russia got Trump’s message, too, and is now doing everything possible to prevent further punishment strikes by the US, even if the Syrian regime will continue to act in the most provocative ways. The focus is clearly shifting from searching for ((or at least talking about) possible means of fighting jointly against ISIS toward increasing confrontation over the future of Syria, with or without the Assad regime. Mutual accusations (“US aggression” vs “Russian failure,” etc.) are signs of irritation and distrust. Germany’s foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel has tried somehow to alleviate these tensions by “finding the truth” about last week’s chemical atrocity, but the Kremlin’s fig leaf of denial of Assad’s crimes increasingly resembles Russia’s cynical refusal to acknowledge its involvement in Donbas “separatism.”
The Kremlin has a very tough nut to crack. Is it possible for Russia to save face and do successful business with President Trump? Would Russia be able to meet any American compromise bottom lines on Syria or any other major issues? President Putin probably believes that he cannot afford to simply abandon Assad without being humiliated once again— something that might cost him very dearly, both at home and abroad. He seemingly neither seeks nor values a prospective reconciliation with the US (and the Western world in general) even as the latter promise increasing rewards for forsaking the criminal Syrian regime. His “experience-based” logic seems to suggest that Russia would easily lose its “allies” – and become a “loser” once again—if the Kremlin loosens its military grip on these allies in the context of a renewed détente with the West.
On the other hand, Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed last week, just about the time the Tomahawks were fired, on the “urgency of the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program”, and pledged to work together to resolve the issue “peacefully.” Nevertheless, a carrier strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson is headed toward the western Pacific Ocean, near the Korean Peninsula. Yet more bravado from Kim Jong-un—for example, a simulated nuclear missile attack on South Korea or Japan—could result in proof that American “strategic patience” has really ended. Will Xi be able to control the swaggering North Korean leader? Or will they actually play games together, as seems to be the case with Putin and Assad?
One more thought – the US missile attack against Russia’s ally Syria, which hosts Russian troops that could not ultimately prevent the attack, is clearly a humiliation for President Putin. He does not forget— let alone forgive —such things. His relatively reserved tone at present should not mislead us. One should bear in mind that he might wish, should the situation require and permit, to prove that the US is also not capable of preventing an attack against its own allies, even when American and /or allied troops are present.