Over the weekend, the Trump administration appeared to send mixed messages to Russia on Syria. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley demanded Bashar al-Assad’s ouster as a condition of peace, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prioritized the fight against ISIS over Assad. In talks with other G-7 counterparts, Tillerson took a tougher line on both Assad and on Russia, making it clear that Vladimir Putin needs to choose. Does he want to stick with the Iran/Assad axis, or have better relations with the US?
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says Russia must choose between aligning itself with the U.S. and likeminded countries or embracing Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran and the militant group Hezbollah. …
Tillerson says the U.S. sees no future role for Assad in Syria, but he says the U.S. isn’t pre-supposing how Assad’s departure will occur.
Tillerson is traveling Tuesday to Moscow. He says Russia can play a role in Syria’s future but that aligning with Assad won’t serve Russia’s long-term interests.
“Our hope,” Tillerson said in a statement, “is that Bashar al-Assad will not be part of that [Syrian] future.” Tillerson further underscored this message by putting the blame for the chemical-weapons attack in Idlib squarely on Russian shoulders. Putin guaranteed the removal of those chemical weapons, Tillerson reminded the G-7 ministers. “It is also clear Russia has failed to uphold the agreements that had been entered into under multiple Security Council resolutions”:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: "Russia has failed in its responsibility" to rid Syria of chemical weapons https://t.co/FnPE4XiFrk
— New Day (@NewDay) April 11, 2017
“It is unclear whether Russia failed to take this obligation seriously, or Russia has been incompetent,” Tillerson concluded, “but this distinction doesn’t much matter to the dead.”
That might make for an awkward moment or two on the next leg of Tillerson’s tour — Moscow. What had been originally planned as a step toward a Putin-Trump summit has taken on a much different cast, as NBC News notes:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, holder of a medal of friendship from Vladimir Putin, had hoped to sit down with avuncular counterpart Sergei Lavrov to discuss Ukraine, NATO, Iran, Syria, sanctions and above all, better relations with Russia.
But that’s not what’s on the table in Moscow. Instead, the agenda is sarin gas, dead children and cruise missiles. And hanging over the talks, the question: “What next?” …
The Kremlin wants to know if the U.S. strike was a one-time intervention in Syria’s six-year conflict, or if the 59 missiles signal a new and deeper involvement by Washington.
Moscow’s concern is that the U.S. doesn’t have a grand strategy even for Syria, never mind the wider Middle East, and that Trump’s hopes of a Russia rapprochement are being smothered amid the policy power struggles inside the administration. As Sergei Lavrov’s spokeswoman at the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova said, the missile strike “is not part of Washington’s strategy … because Washington lacks a strategy in Syria. The only thing that’s predictable about the U.S. is the unpredictability of its foreign policy.”
Well, that’s certainly true now. Russia might also have a point about the lack of a grand strategy; ever since the withdrawal of forces from Iraq, the US has been in sheer reactive mode in the Middle East, which is what led to the short-sighted war on Moammar Qaddafi that produced the failed state of Libya. It’s also why Barack Obama got pushed so far out of his red-line lane on Syria in 2013, because Congress discovered the same thing. The dissonance between Trump’s campaign rhetoric and his response to the chemical-weapons attack last week strongly suggests a lack of a grand strategy, too. However, Russia’s grand strategy to align a superpower with radical Shi’ites in Tehran hardly highlights any wisdom on their part either.
It’s time for some frank talk in both directions. If Russia wants to remain a player, then Putin had better live up to his promises, or expect a short life span for his grand strategy in the region. And if the US wants to retain its influence in the region, we’d better decide to commit to it — or get the heck out altogether and leave the Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Russians to hash it out between them.