April 13, 2017
According to the Trump administration, on April 4, toxic substance spread after Syrian warplanes dropped bombs on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held Idlib province. Scores of people lost their lives. Russia offered another explanation. It said that Syrian warplanes had struck an insurgent storehouse containing toxic substances to be used in chemical weapons. The next day, Turkey’s Health Ministry issued a statement saying that “according to the results of the first analysis, there were findings suggesting that the patients were exposed to chemical substance (sarin)”. The UN Security Council failed to agree on a resolution which would have paved the way for a full investigation. And on April 7, US cruise missiles struck Al Sharyat airfield. The Trump administration called the operation an “overwhelming success”. Russian military called the effectiveness of the strikes “extremely low”.
Those three days have heightened tension between Washington and Moscow. They have also reignited the controversy regarding President Assad’s future with conflicting statements from the Trump administration. Secretary Tillerson who was criticized for remaining silent for too long as America’s top diplomat has taken a tough line towards Moscow. And, underlining international support for the missile strike on April 10, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, “… Russia, on the other hand, stands with Syria, North Korea and Iran. I think when you contrast the two groups of country sets, it’s pretty clear that we’re on the right side of this issue.” This may be the first time an American official has put Russia and North Korea in the same group.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria was a game changer. It bolstered the regime giving it the upper hand on the battlefield. One may ask what would have happened had Russia not intervened. One answer could be continued fighting; another, the eventual collapse of the regime to be followed by a fresh round of battle between ISIS, other terrorist organizations and hundreds of rebel groups for power. A third answer could be, as the Russians seem to think, a complete takeover by ISIS. But no one has suggested that the moment Assad goes, rebel groups will join hands to form a democratic, progressive and secular Syria. This is why the Obama administration appeared to drop its insistence on Assad’s ouster. The Trump administration seemed indifferent to his continued rule. So, the question why President Assad has engaged in an act that was sure to to trigger an American military response boggles the mind. Can his being a brutal dictator or simply irrational explain the situation? Without a timely UN investigation to be conducted by Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) experts, such questions will remain unanswered. One would admit, however, that whatever happened at Khan Sheikhoun, it was a tragedy and it provided President Trump with an opportunity to display American power at no cost after 78 days of disarray at the White House. The question now is what follows. Does President Trump have a coherent Syria strategy beyond his unconventional tweets or does everything go back to five years ago when Assad’s ouster was the principal objective? What is his Russia policy? What is his view of the Middle East? At the outset of his meeting with Secretary Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said: “I won’t hide the fact that we have a lot of questions, taking into account the extremely ambiguous and sometimes contradictory ideas which have been expressed in Washington across the whole spectrum of bilateral and multilateral affairs…” A good number of Americans, Western leaders and probably NATO’s Secretary General wouldn’t disagree with him.
Despite White House comments emphasizing Western Unity, G7 Foreign Ministers meeting in Lucca failed to agree on a proposal by Britain for sanctions against Russia. Their 30-page Joint Communique addressed many questions facing the broad Middle East. A statement issued by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on the margins of the meeting summed up the challenge in Syria:
“… Not everyone may like this, but without Moscow and Tehran there will be no solution for Syria. This is why exclusion is definitely not the way forward. I think it is right to attempt inclusion once more. I do not like to imagine that Russia will remain loyal indefinitely to such a brutal regime as Assad’s, which knows no bounds whatsoever.”
Following the Syrian chemical weapons deal, both former Secretary of State Kerry and Minister Lavrov repeatedly said that the resolution of many international problems depended on their countries’ joint efforts, that together the US and Russia could make a difference, make things happen. Unfortunately, this did not prove to be the case. Although the relationship is currently characterized by tension, Secretary Tillerson and Minister Lavrov nonetheless confirmed, during their joint press conference, that despite deep differences, low level of mutual confidence, both sides wish to keep the lines of communication open and seek cooperation wherever possible. They also expressed support for a full investigation into the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack. But, one thing is clear: Russia will not, at least in the foreseeable future, give up its support for President Assad.
The Turkish government was jubilant about the American missile strike at Al Sharyat airfield. It said that this was greatly appreciated but not enough. Obviously, the government desperately wants to make a good beginning with the Trump administration for a number of reasons, prominently among them Fethullah Gülen’s extradition and US support to PYD/YPG. But, total realignment with Washington’s Syria policy will no doubt exact a price on Ankara’s uneasy reconciliation with Moscow. As a matter of fact, unnecessary rhetoric on the Syrian conflict at this particular stage will probably lead to as much resentment in Moscow as the downing of the Russian Su-24. And, Washington and Ankara may not always be on the same page on regional questions. A case in point is the state of Turkish-Egyptian relations: Following the ouster of President Morsi, the Turkish government declared his successor a second public enemy after Assad. But this is how President Trump welcomed President Sisi at the White House:
“… I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al-Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt…”
The Turkish government needs to rebuild its regional relations from stratch, stop burning bridges and going from one extreme to the other. Russia and the US disagree on many issues but their lines of communication remain open. Because, that is the dictate of diplomacy.