Every country in the world, Canada included, is scrambling to catch up to some breathtaking changes in the fundamental approach of the United States to global politics. These changes were prompted by the Trump administration’s reactions to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria against civilians in a rebel-held town. Gone, it would appear, is the Trump presidency’s indifference to the continued rule of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; gone is the determination to run an isolationist foreign policy; gone are the last vestiges of any intended new best friend approach to Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. In their place is an emerging policy based on red lines, displays of military force, and confrontational diplomacy with adversaries.
The US policy shift with regard to both Syria and Russia has been reinforced by the release of a four-page intelligence report on the Syrian chemical-weapons attack of April 4. The US intelligence finding of Syrian responsibility for the chemical attack is buttressed by signals intelligence (communications intercepts by the National Security Agency), what is called “geospatial intelligence” (which would include satellite and drone imagery), and open source information, including the social media activity that captured images of the horrific suffering by civilians in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, where sarin gas was used. The US intelligence report directly blames the Russians for trying to cover up Syrian responsibility. Trump administration officials, including the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, and the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, have gone even further, suggesting that Russia was in some way complicit in the attack, not just in the cover-up that followed.
The Putin regime has responded by doubling down on its support for Mr. al-Assad, by charging the US with unlawful and provocative military action, and by engaging in pure KGB-style disinformation, including the suggestion by Mr. Putin, an old KGB hand, that the chemical-weapons release was really the fault of rebel groups (terrorists), who are now planning “pranks” involving further releases of chemical weapons that they will blame on the Assad regime.
In the midst of this escalatory war of words, Mr. Tillerson has just concluded his first visit to Moscow, where he held lengthy discussions with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and was treated to a two-hour discussion with Mr. Putin himself.
The press conference that concluded the Tillerson visit marked a stepping back from rhetorical brinkmanship on the part of both Russia and the US, but offered little in the way of concrete outcomes. Mr. Lavrov did not repeat the Russian claim that rebel forces were responsible for the chemical-weapons attack, but did call for a thorough investigation. There was no reiteration of the charge that the US cruise-missile strike was unlawful. Mr. Lavrov fired a shot across the bow of the US by warning against any effort at regime change in Damascus. On the future of the Assad regime there is no common ground.
Mr. Tillerson, for his part, was more blunt about the poor state of US–Russian relations, acknowledged that there would be some steps taken to try to solve some of the current irritants, but left open the question of how the longer-term tensions between the US and Russia would be resolved. His closing statement thanking his Russian hosts for a constructive dialogue was certainly on the icy side.
If the US government now seeks a new strategy toward Russia and Syria, it could do worse than borrow some lessons from the 19th-century German strongman, Prince Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck was famous for his aphorism about power being the exercise of an iron fist sheathed in a velvet glove. The Trump administration will have to learn the value of the velvet glove, not least if it wishes to emulate the old German chancellor’s efforts to divide and keep down his enemies through alliance efforts rather than endless war.
Trying to split off Vladimir Putin from his ally, Bashar al-Assad, looks, on the face of it, a hopeless project. What it has to be is a long-term one, involving pressure (read sanctions), constant diplomatic engagement, quiet support for Russian civil society and political dissent, and, on the velvet side, some demonstration to the Russians that their role and place in Syria could be guaranteed by ousting Mr. al-Assad and bringing the Syrian civil war to an end. A joint US–Russia determination to really get the job done this time and remove all chemical-weapons capabilities from Syria might be the place to start.
This article was first published in the Globe and Mail on 12 April 2017.