US-Russia diplomacy: Why one airstrike does not leverage make

With members of the Trump administration offering conflicting interpretations of the US missile strike on Syria, analysts say Secretary of State Tillerson’s hand has been weakened as he arrives in Moscow.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson disembarks from his plane upon arrival at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow April 11, 2017.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives in Moscow Tuesday with an unexpected card in his hand – after the US airstrike in Syria last week signaled President Trump’s willingness to use military force to address egregious and deadly infractions of international norms.

The Russians now know they are no longer dealing with the cautious, cool, and intervention-resistant Barack Obama.

No longer can Moscow simply string along US diplomatic overtures – as it did former Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts last year to negotiate a humanitarian cease-fire to halt the gruesome siege of Aleppo – knowing there are no American teeth to worry about.

But that does not mean Mr. Trump’s Tomahawk missile strikes in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of the nerve gas sarin against civilians will automatically give Mr. Tillerson new leverage in Moscow on key issues in US-Russia relations.

On Syria in particular, any new heft to US credibility will subside quickly if the airstrike proves to be a one-time emotional reaction from an internationally untested president, regional analysts say.

“The real question is, was this a ‘fire-and-forget’ gesture aimed at retaliating for a chemical issue, or did this signal the beginning of a comprehensive effort to end the free ride Assad has had in terrorizing his own people?” says Frederic Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington.

The Russians are likely to take the US with new seriousness if they sense Washington is done with overlooking Assad’s assault on Syrians and his central role in a war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, sent millions fleeing to refuge around the Middle East and Europe, and created a vacuum for ISIS to occupy, says Ambassador Hof, who was special adviser on transition in Syria to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The challenge Tillerson now faces in reaping the benefits of the new card he holds, others say, is that since the airstrike Thursday, the Trump foreign policy team has offered a wide range of interpretations of where US policy on Syria is headed.

Short-lived leverage

“Right after these strikes I would have argued that Trump had reinforced his position with the Russians, that they now knew they were dealing with a president who was willing to take action and risks,” says Nicolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies and an expert in US-Russia relations at the US Naval War College in Newport, RI. “But since then Tillerson’s hand has been weakened by the very different statements coming out of the administration on Syria and where the US goes from here.”

Dr. Gvosdev notes that, “In the last few days we’ve heard suggestions that regime change [in Syria] is back on the agenda, we had [the US ambassador to the UN] Nikki Haley talking about new sanctions on Russia over Syria.” And that’s leaving aside the disconnect between suggestions of “much more direct US military action in Syria,” he adds, and Tillerson’s statement that defeating ISIS remains the US priority there.

“What this means is that instead of talking seriously with Tillerson the Russians are going to be asking, ‘Who is the real face of the administration when it comes to Russia?” he says. “The Russians feel they have less clarity today than two weeks ago, and that is not a situation that encourages a serious discussion.”

In Italy Monday on a stop at a G7 foreign ministers’ meeting, Tillerson used a commemoration of a 1944 Nazi massacre to declare, “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”

Tillerson will take with him to Moscow a statement the G7 ministers issued Tuesday calling on Russia to join the West in resolving Syria's civil war and ending Assad's reign. But a British proposal to pursue new sanctions on Russia over its Syria role failed to garner support.

A day earlier on Sunday news programs, Tillerson reaffirmed the defeat of ISIS as the US priority in Syria and suggested the missile strikes were the outlier and that the US has no intentions of pursuing regime change against Assad.

Appearing on ABC’s “This Week” and CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Tillerson even repeated his position from before Assad’s chemical-weapons attack that ultimately it will be “the Syrian people [who] decide the fate of Assad” – even as Ambassador Haley was on a different Sunday show feeding speculation about regime change.

“We know there’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime,” she said on CNN.

Uncertainty about US

The lack of clarity on US-Russia relations has analysts guessing more than before, under what were already uncertain conditions, about what every statement or gesture might mean.

So for example when the Kremlin announced Monday that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not be meeting with Tillerson, it caused a commotion: Was Mr. Putin underscoring his condemnation of the US airstrike, or was he instead expressing doubts that Tillerson comes to Moscow speaking for Trump – in which case he doesn’t merit the Russian president’s time?

That kind of uncertainty weakens Tillerson’s credibility with the Russians. But even some analysts who believe US leverage was enhanced by last week’s air strikes say it will quickly vanish if all the US accomplished is to limit Assad to using conventional weapons in Syria’s war.

Indeed, if all Trump’s airstrike does is give Assad a refresher course in the lesson Hof says the Syrian ruler learned from Obama’s “red line” on chemical-weapons use in 2013 – that “I can use anything I want to attack anything I want, including schools, hospitals … as long as I don’t do it with chemicals” – then nothing will have changed.

Neither the Russians nor their client Assad will have much reason to heed Trump’s newly stated determination to halt what Hof calls Assad’s “mass homicide” of his own people.

Common ground on Libya

The Russians may receive Tillerson with little to like in what they’ve heard from the Trump administration since the missile strikes, and they may remain confused about US foreign policy and who is leading it.

But if they are looking for some common ground to anchor the Tillerson-Lavrov talks, they might seize upon what appears to be a mutual interest the two powers profess to have in heading off even deeper instability in Syria.

On Monday the Kremlin appeared to draw its own line in the sand ahead of Tillerson’s visit with a statement that “there is no alternative to Assad” in Syria other than worse chaos and empowered terrorists.

A day earlier, Tillerson seemed to say something similar, telling Face the Nation that regime change is not in the US cards and citing as a reason why the same Middle East example the Russians repeatedly use to explain their support of Assad.

“You now, we’ve seen what violent regime change looks like in Libya,” Tillerson said, “and the kind of chaos that can be unleashed.”

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