Syria attack widens U.S.-Russia rift
The U.S. and Russia traded sharp warnings on Syria this week as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with his Russian counterpart in Moscow, days after President Trump ordered a military strike on a Syrian air base in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. More than 80 civilians were killed in the sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, many of them children. The White House accused Russia of carrying out a “disinformation campaign” to cover up its ally’s use of the deadly nerve agent, and Tillerson said President Vladimir Putin had to surrender his support for Assad to have any chance of better relations with the U.S. and the West. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced the U.S. strike as “illegal,” and warned the Trump administration not to attack the Syrian regime in the future. “We believe it is fundamentally important not to let these actions happen again,” Lavrov said.
After Syria’s chemical weapons attack, two Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat Air Base—home to the warplanes that carried out the chemical attack. U.S. officials claimed the cruise missiles destroyed 20 percent of Syria’s operational aircraft. In a televised address, Trump said he had acted to protect the “vital national security interest of the U.S.,” because Assad had violated international chemical weapons agreements. The Syrian president, Trump said, had “choked out the lives” of helpless civilians, including “beautiful babies,” and was “an animal” and “truly evil person.”
The administration gave several conflicting messages about its new policy on Syria. Defense Secretary James Mattis said additional strikes were possible if Assad used chemicals weapons again, but that the U.S. had no intention of entering “the most complex civil war raging on the planet.” But Tillerson said that Assad had no future, and that his reign was “coming to an end.” Putin, who held his own private meeting with Tillerson, said the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun was staged, and that the relationship between Russia and the U.S. had only worsened under Trump. “The working level of trust… has deteriorated,” said Putin.
What the editorials said
The liberal theory that “Trump is a prisoner of Vladimir Putin is looking less credible by the day,” said The Wall Street Journal. After initially deciding to continue President Obama’s passivity regarding Assad’s atrocities, Trump shocked and angered Putin by delivering a retaliatory strike that “the world’s thugs will notice.” Assad will think twice about using deadly gas again, said The Washington Post, and U.S. allies have reason to hope that “Trump will fill the leadership vacuum in the Middle East and beyond.” It’s no wonder, then, “that Trump’s action was cheered from Britain to Germany and from Israel to Japan.”
Trump’s “breathtaking turnaround” from his previous “America First” isolationism is deeply unsettling, said The New York Times. When the Syrian president unleashed a much deadlier chemical attack in 2013, killing 1,400 people, Trump urged Obama not to retaliate. His whiplash turn raises a host of questions: Was the strike legal without congressional authorization? “Was it an impetuous, isolated response” to images of dying babies, or part of “a larger strategy?”
What the columnists said
“Trump made all the right calls” on Syria, said Walter Russell Mead in WSJ.com. Assad’s chemical attack was a probe “to test the mettle of the new White House.” By selecting a limited but symbolically powerful response, Trump successfully “vindicated America’s prestige” and reassured nervous allies. It was the president’s first serious foreign-policy test—and “he passed with flying colors.”
“It’ll take more than a missile strike to clean up Obama’s mess in Syria,” said Robert Kagan in The Washington Post. Obama should have punished Assad when the Syrian president first crossed the famous “red line” of a chemical attack. Instead, Obama struck a clearly empty deal with Russia to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. His refusal to intervene opened the door for both Russia and Iran to move military assets into Syria to save Assad’s genocidal regime from collapse. Trump now needs to follow up with “a comprehensive political, diplomatic, and military strategy to rebalance the situation in Syria in America’s favor.”
So much for the Trump-Putin bromance, said L. Todd Wood in The Washington Times. “In one brilliant stroke,” Trump put Assad on notice, “called out Russia’s support of his barbarism in a very public way,” and “drove a stake in the heart of the ‘Trump’s a Putin puppet’ narrative.” Trump and Putin’s relationship will only get frostier if the U.S. pushes for Assad’s removal, said Philip Gordon in WashingtonPost.com. To Russia’s paranoid authoritarian leader, “the very concept of regime change is anathema.”
Let’s remember that Trump’s missile strike really changes nothing in Syria, said Max Boot in ForeignPolicy.com. The president said this week, “We’re not going into Syria,” and has shown no appetite for forging “a comprehensive diplomatic-military plan” to end the six-year civil war. Assad remains free to slaughter civilians with conventional weapons and barrel bombs. “If there is a coherent administration strategy, it is impossible to discern.” ■