Great expectations crash into reality
US allies in G7 rule out military solution on Syria, Moscow calls Washington's demands 'absurd'
13 April, 2017
The US carried out a massive air strike on Syria despite recent declarations by the US President that he is willing to have a dialogue with Moscow and literally days after he assured that ousting Assad is not a primary goal for the White House. Having ceded the political initiative in the US and been restrained on some ill-conceived reform proposals, Donald Trump seems determined to redirect his efforts towards earning points on the international scene. Until just days ago, his comments on foreign policy were limited to matters affecting Americans directly, such as the drain of capital, jobs relocation, migration and terrorism. Things took a quick turn recently as he ordered the launch of 54 Tomahawk missiles against the Shayrat airfield in Syria under the pretext that aircrafts from the base were used for an alleged chemical attack of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad that killed between 50 and 100 people on 4 April in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.
Then he sent the Secretary of State on a clarifying mission to the G7 meeting of foreign ministers in the Tuscan town of Lucca. The assignment was to gather enough support to pressure the Kremlin into agreeing to a deal that would see Putin abandoning his backing for Bashar Al-Assad in exchange for the sanctions against Russia being lifted. Downing Street reported that Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May had agreed during a phone call that there is a “window of opportunity” to solve the Syria crisis.
Sobered by the migrant wave that hit Europe a year ago and that could repeat at any moment, Washington’s European partners had a different response than what the White House probably expected. The idea of new strikes on Syria and sanctions against Russia seems unpalatable to them, given the mountain of problems related to refugees and the series of terror attacks on the streets of European cities.
Germany and Italy stressed on 11 April the need for a political solution in Syria. “We do not believe that the military solution is the right one,” said Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, who hosted the talks. The ministers agreed that “Russia must not be isolated and, on the contrary, must insofar as possible be involved in the political transition process in Syria,” Alfano proclaimed at the end of the meeting.
And so, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson headed to Moscow with little ammunition. Russia, which responded to the US airstrike on Syria with accusations of aggression and insisted that it was Syrian rebels who were responsible for the chemical weapons, showed Tillerson a rough treatment as expected. Moscow described Washington’s calls for Russia to abandon Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad as “short-sighted” and “absurd”, as the Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov put it. He once again rejected the accusations and urged for unbiased international inquiry into the circumstances of the use of toxic chemicals.
In his opening remarks ahead of his meeting with Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even warned the US not to attempt another attack against Syria after the missile strike plunged US-Russian relations to one of the lowest points since the Cold War. “I will be frank, we have a lot of questions regarding very ambiguous and contradictory ideas on the international agenda in Washington,” Lavrov said after shaking hands with Tillerson and sitting down at a conference table to welcome him to Moscow, a rite typically marked by polite pleasantries. “And I’d like to say, apart from words, we saw some very alarming actions regarding the unlawful attack in Syria,” he continued. “It is of paramount importance to avert risks and recurrences of such actions in the future,” stressed Russia’s leading diplomat.
Tillerson, looking directly at his counterpart while speaking, took a more diplomatic tone in his initial remarks, saying that he hoped to clarify "areas of common objectives, areas of common interests, even when our tactical approaches may be different". He said he hoped they could candidly discuss ways to narrow them going forward. He also said it was important that the two governments maintain open lines of communication. As it turned out, Moscow was not ready to budge on the primary goal of Tillerson’s mission - persuading Russia to help remove Assad from power. And so, Trump’s presumably high expectations for a successful first international move crashed into reality, as did the myth of his relations with Putin, which continue to be a subject of keen interest to the American media. Above anything else, he should have done more to convince the international community that the chemical attack was indeed Assad’s doing beyond the unsubstantiated claims of officials because the world still remembers all the lies employed during the war in Iraq.