Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will head to Moscow this week to negotiate with the Russians, and his words will be backed up by the full power of the U.S. military.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has run the show in Syria because the Obama administration ceded the upper hand. The weakness of the previous administration boosted the power of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, giving rise to a major crisis that cost the lives of countless civilians. The latest atrocity occurred Tuesday, when the regime carried out a chemical weapons attack on a hospital, murdering innocent women and children.
The Obama administration drew a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, yet when Assad used sarin on civilians in 2013, former President Barack Obama backed down, settling for an ineffective agreement that clearly failed to eliminate the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles — despite the administration’s claims to have done so.
President Donald Trump ordered cruise missile strikes against the Syrian airbase from which Tuesday’s brutal chemical weapons attack was launched, upholding Obama’s “red line” years later and demonstrating that a U.S. threat of military force is more than rhetoric.
The new administration put the blame for the attack as much on Russia as it did on the Syrian regime.
“The U.S. and the Russian Government entered into agreements whereby Russia would locate these weapons, they would secure the weapons, they would destroy the weapons, and that they would act as the guarantor that these weapons would no longer be present in Syria,” Tillerson said Thursday.
“Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on that commitment from 2013. Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement,” he added.
Moscow received no prior warning before Trump unleashed thousands of pounds of ordnance on Syria, according to Tillerson, and Russia is demanding an explanation for Trump’s stunning decision.
“Let him come (to Moscow) and tell what strange things they did,” a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Friday.
While Tillerson will likely provide an explanation, it is unlikely that he will bend the knee. Trump’s strike on al-Shayrat airfield has given the U.S. leverage and Tillerson the ability to negotiate from a position of strength.
Under Obama, the U.S. pursued a path of preemptive de-escalation, giving Russia the advantage. Russia has to consider its moves more carefully now that Trump has demonstrated he will act when necessary. The Russians may have previously assumed that the new administration would be pliant, but it is unlikely that they are thinking that now.
“The United States is the superpower, and not the other way around, and it’s unlikely that Russia will provoke a military confrontation with a superior military force—assuming it knows U.S. threats of military force are credible, which it presumably now knows,” argues Shadi Hamid, the contributing editor for the Atlantic.
“The timing of Tillerson’s visit is good because he can, in the aftermath of whatever action we take, go to the Russians with a stronger hand and explain to them what our objectives are in the Middle East,” Evelyn Farkas, who served as the Pentagon’s top Russia official under Obama, told Politico. The U.S. is in a position to take back the power on the conflict in Syria and lead.
Trump’s strike on Syria was a reminder to state leaders the world over, from China to Russia to North Korea, that “the U.S. is still the world’s preeminent power,” according to Paul Haenle, a seasoned diplomat who served former Presidents George W. Bush and Obama as an adviser.
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