US Takes Sharper Tone on Russia’s Role in Syria: Despite Such Reports, the Future Holds Promise

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) and Russian Federation Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov (right). Reportedly, US President Donald Trump and Tillerson have sought to isolate Russia for backing the Syrian government after its chemical weapons attack in Idlib. They were also allegedly working to put international pressure on Moscow to change course. Yet, since the cruise missile strikes and bilateral talks, the situation regarding the US and Russia on Syria has actually improved. Change may be possible on US and Russian positions on more issues, but only through bold, determined diplomacy.

According to an April 12, 2017 New York Times article entitled “US Takes Sharper Tone on Russia’s Role in Syria,” US President Donald Trump and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have sought to isolate Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin for backing the Syrian government in the wake of its lethal chemical weapons attack on civilians. They were also reportedly working to build international pressure on Moscow to change course. In support of that conclusion, the article reports that on April 12, 2017, Tillerson came away from his meeting with Putin without reaching agreement on facts involving the chemical weapons assault in Syria or alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election. In describing the joint news conference with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov following the meeting with Putin, the April 12th New York Times article quotes Tillerson as saying, “There is a low level of trust between our countries.” It reports he further stated, “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.” Noting the level of tension surrounding the aftermath of the Syrian chemical weapons attack, the article asserts, a quick détente seemed a remote possibility. Further supporting that suggestion, the article reported that during a thirty minute news conference at the White House, Trump declared, “Right now, we’re not getting along with Russia at all–we may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia.” The point was additionally made in the article that events have sharply diverged from the meeting of the minds between the US and Russia that Trump frequently aspired to when he was campaigning, and there was no visible warming of the relationship. Yet, conversely, the same article explains that although Trump said the US-Russia relationship was failing, he held out hope that the two countries could come to terms, suggesting that Tillerson’s talks with Putin had gone better than expected. Although it highlighted occasions when the Trump administration in Washington, Moscow and New York, publicly chastised Putin, the article also indicated that the administration was privately working hard to “hash out” differences with him.

As greatcharlie affirmed in a previous post, the press, the news media, serves a free, effective democracy best, and is at its very best, when it unearths what is concealed or clarifies what may be confusing to the public about government actions. The press ensures power in a democracy remains in the hands of the people. Such efforts by the press are in great variance with reporting on Trump’s actions and intentions concerning the April 6, 2017 Tomahawk cruise missile strikes and relations with Russia on Syria. In the US, in particular, newsmedia pundits and policy analysts have meted out judgments of Trump’s decisions and actions akin to those once made “on the drumhead” for soldiers, an archaic type of summary military trial where only sentences were given and no interest was paid to evidence or arguments. (A drum is turned on its head and used as “the seat of justice.”) Another disquieting trend of news media criticism of Trump is to insist that he should follow some schedule and make certain decisions based on some template they apparently have in mind of how US presidents should act. (They would likely prefer a carbon copy of what they have found comfortable for nearly a decade.) A point of attack upon Trump’s actions is the idea that nothing he does can have real meaning or encourage a favorable outcome for US foreign policy because his administration’s actions have not been based on a coherent national policy or strategy, an articulated policy on the Middle East, and consequently, an identifiable policy on Syria.

The truth will always dispel falsehoods and misunderstandings. The reality is that following the US cruise missile strikes and Tillerson’s bilateral talks in Moscow, the situation in Syria was made somewhat better, and more importantly, US-Russia relations had turned in a positive direction. As the April 12th New York Times article alluded, Tillerson and Lavrov acknowledged in Moscow that actions have been taken by their respective countries which have irritated the other and they are taking steps to address that. Change may very well be possible in the respective positions of the US and Russia on certain issues, including Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. However, that will only happen through bold, determined diplomacy. Details of recent events and the Moscow talks are analyzed here to provide a better understanding of what has developed and what may come next. Ratio me ducet, non fortuna. (Reason, not luck, will lead me.)

Trump’s Alleged Policy Troubles

Festinare nocet, nocet cunctatio saepe; tempore quaeque suo qui facit, ille sapit. (It is bad to hurry, and delay is often as bad; the wise person is the one who does everything in its proper time.) Despite reports otherwise, Trump has actually taken a logical, prudent approach to foreign and national security policy. He is determined to make decisions that are true to promises he made during the campaign. He has initially sought to develop a firm understanding of what realistically can be done rather than have his team rapidly produce policies from analyses based on the abstract as a matter of political expedience. The source for Trump’s unorthodox exercise of due diligence on policy may likely be his experience as a builder. In that field of endeavor, Trump often may have greatly admired architectural designs of structures proposed to him, but he would invariably wait for engineering reports, cost estimates, and analyses of his business team before deciding on anything. It is an evolutionary process. The result of that approach has been the construction of some very impressive properties worldwide. Current and former generals serving in the Trump administration, well-versed in military history, might find parallel with this apparent concept very likely guiding their president’s thinking and the words of US General George Patton, Jr.: “One does not plan and then try to make circumstances fit the plans. One tries to make plans firmly the circumstances.” Out of necessity, Trump has energetically taken action on urgent issues; the strike in Syria is a prime example of that. Further, Trump, along with other senior administration officials, have held bilateral and multilateral talks with other countries in international organizations.

The practice of two prior presidential administrations was to make pronouncements on what could be done, poorly considering and matching possibilities with capabilities. They would then take action, the results of which were often failed foreign policy initiatives. An example of such an outcome was the notion promoted by the administration of US President George Bush in 2003 that US forces would enter Iraq and be greeted with cheers, open arms, and candy by Iraqis. Another example is the notion proffered by the administration of US President Barack Obama a decade later, that pronouncing “Assad must go” and supporting the Syrian Opposition Movement on the margins, would bring the Assad regime to negotiating table and its orderly release of the reigns of power would be arranged. Some might say their approaches were conventional. Nevertheless, they were wrong.

When Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, he was presenting the term as a concept, a guiding principle indicating his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. Still, it would be fallacious to apply this concept to Trump’s actions if he has witnessed grave harm come to any long-time ally,  partner or friend of the US, or innocent civilians of Syria, who he has suggested he would protect in safe zones if they returned home. Trump has a moral center, the values from which have a place in his foreign policy decision making.

The Better Angels of Trump’s Nature?

To liberally paraphrase the early Christian theologian and philosopher St. Augustine of Hippo, the defense of war is that it is using lethal force to stop others from committing evil or from inflicting evil upon people. The moral dilemma remains for us: as people who are ourselves sinful and living in a fallen world, our motivations for doing things can be misguided. Our sinful passions can control our behaviors which can lead us to act for wrong reasons and to accomplish sinful ends. Self-neglectful virtue melts all physical and ideological boundaries with a charity that gives hope to those perceived as the most helpless. After the chemical weapon attack in Idlib, Trump felt compelled to make a strong decision. Some policy analysts and news media pundits insist that it was made at the cost of contradicting certain principles, as America First, that he has firmly espoused. True, when Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, he was presenting the term as a concept, a guiding principle indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. Trump will unlikely be disposed to subordinating the interests of the US to the needs, wishes, or demands of any country. However, it would be fallacious for anyone to apply this concept to his actions if he has witnessed grave harm come to any long-time ally, partner, or friend of the US, or innocent Syrian civilians, who Trump has suggested he would protect in safe zones if they returned home. Trump has a moral center, the values from which have a place in his foreign policy decision making, a most recently his response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria. The better angels of his human nature took over. Trump’s words on the evening of the strikes in Syria signalled all of this. Trump explained: “My fellow Americans: On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians.  Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children.  It was a slow and brutal death for so many.  Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.  No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

The cruise missile strikes launched on April 6, 2017 by the Trump administration were calibrated to do only what was prescribed in response to Assad’s actions. Those engaged in its planning and execution can certainly hold their heads high. Yet, no paean, no song of praise or triumph, was heard from Trump at his residence Mar-a-Lago that evening. No celebrations took place at the White House or the Pentagon for that matter. Rather, Trump said: “Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.  We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world.  We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed.  And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will, in the end, prevail.”

Trump’s Military Experts Take Action

Undoubtedly, after learning of the Assad regime’s chemical attack, Trump undoubtedly asked his national security team to provide concrete answers on what to do in response. Trump did not simply vow to do something. He surely kept in mind Obama’s slow reaction in response to the Assad regime’s August 2013 crossing of a red line he drew on the use of chemical weapons. There was a chemical attack in a Damascus suburb and considerable evidence existed to support the accusation that Assad’s forces lainched it. Indeed, three days prior to the 2013 attack, the US had collected continuous streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence, revealing regime military activities allegedly associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack. Information gathered by the US from multiple streams clearly indicated that after those preparations were made, the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21st. Satellite detections, specifically, corroborated that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred–to include Kafr Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya, and Mu’addamiyah. There was also the detection of rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning, about ninety minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media. The lack of flight activity or missile launches also led the US to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack.

Immediately following the cruise missile strike, US National Security Adviser, US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster left open the possibility that Trump will take further military action in Syria. Still, McMaster emphasized on “Fox News Sunday” on April 9, 2017: “We need some kind of political solution to that very complex problem.” He made it clear that finding a “political solution” to the Syrian crisis was what Trump wanted. McMaster further explained that Trump wants a worldwide response to Assad’s action that would include Assad allies Russia and Iran. Yet, McMaster clarified that remark by stating: “I’m not saying we are the ones to effect that change.” He then pointed to the fact that Russia and Iran “somehow think it’s OK to align with a murderous regime.” McMaster also affirmed on April 9th that the administration will try to simultaneously change the Assad regime and destroy the Islamic State terror group, entrenched in Syria. In an effort to clarify Trump’s foreign policy, McMaster said, “There has to be a degree of simultaneous action with some sequencing.”

US National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (above) has left open the possibility of further US military action in Syria. Perhaps members of Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center who provide combat service support for units that launch chemical attacks could be targeted by US strikes. The Trump administration could also let Assad feel “personal discomfort” for his actions. For example, an attack could damage facilities providing electric power to the neighborhood in which Assad lives through the use of non-lethal technologies such as electromagnetic pulse weapons.

Chemical Weapons and the Assad Regime

Syrian chemical weapons personnel who prepared chemical ordinance for the August 21, 2013, and the April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack included members of the Syrian Scientific Studies Research Center. The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, which is subordinate to the Syrian Arab Republic Ministry of Defense, is tasked with managing Syria’s chemical weapons program. According to French Intelligence, the organization is responsible for producing toxic agents for use in war, pinpointing Branch 450 as responsible for filling munitions with chemicals and ensuring the security of sites  where chemical agents are stockpiled. Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of ‘Adra from August 18, 2013 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21, 2013 near an area that the regime was known to mix chemical weapons, including sarin. On August 21st, a Syrian regime element  was surveilled preparing for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area. That element was using gas masks. US intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that any Syrian Opposition forces were planning to use chemical weapons.

A publicly released summary of the US intelligence community’s assessment of the April 4, 2017 chemical attack explains the Syrian regime maintains the capability and intent to use chemical weapons against the opposition prevent the loss of territory deemed critical to survival. It assessed that Damascus launched this chemical attack in response to a Syrian Opposition offensive in Northern Hamah Province that threatened key infrastructure. Senior regime military leaders were probably involved in planning the attack. According to the summary, a significant body of pro-opposition social media reports indicated that the chemical attack began in Khan Shaykhun at 6:55AM local time on April 4, 2017. The summary claimed further that the chemical agent was delivered by regime Su-22 fixed wing aircraft that took off from the regime controlled Shayrat Airfield. Reportedly, These aircraft were in the vicinity of Khan Shaykhun nearly 20 minutes before reports of the chemical attack began and were seen flying away from the area shortly after the attack. Additionally, the summary indicates personnel historically associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program were at Shayrat Airfield in late March making preparations for an upcoming attack in Northern Syria, and they were present at the airfield on the day of the attack.

A Possible Next Military Step

Much as the facilities, air assets, and personnel of Shayrat Airfield were targeted for cruise missile strikes, members of Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center who provided combat service support for units that launched the chemical attacks should be targeted by US strikes. Strikes on them should be executed not only as a consequence to their participation in the operation, but with the goal of removing them from the equation in Syria and obviating the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future. The facilities and equipment of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, from bases and offices, to trucks and gas masks should be destroyed to severely curtail the organization’s ability to support any chemical attacks in the future. US should be confident enough after attacks to assess numbers of remaining personnel only of a size enough to maintain stores of the ordinance until the time that perhaps an international body entering Syria at a later date might become engaged in its management. Under no circumstances should the US allow attacks to create a circumstance where Islamic militant forces could gain control of the chemical weapons at any site.

Further, according to US intelligence, Assad is the ultimate decision maker for Syria’s chemical weapons program.  If a direct attack upon is not a viable option, the Trump administration could as a minimum let Assad feel some “discomfort” for his actions and let him know how vulnerable he truly is. For example, a precision attack could be launched on the Syrian infrastructure designed to severely damage electric power in the neighborhood in which Assad lives. It could mean the use of non-lethal technologies such as electromagnetic pulse weapons that can seize all electric equipment of any kind in the vicinity. While the well-being of Assad and his family members should not be placed in danger, the attack should impact their daily lives. Such calibrated attacks would bring the consequences of Assad’s chemical attacks literally to his home. Assad’s neighbors will also know that the strike against their electricity and their normally well-protected living space came as a result of Assad’s use of chemical weapons. It is human nature to follow. It is human destruction that results from following the wrong leader.

Tillerson had previously met with Putin and senior Russian officials to secure oil deals while serving as the Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil. On June 21, 2013, Putin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors a foreigner can be bestowed by Russia after brokering a deal with the Russian state-owned energy giant Rosneft. However, Tillerson cannot, and will not, give any of that much importance now. At the April 12, 2017 meeting, Moscow discovered that as US Secretary of State, Tillerson is still very professional and he will approach issues with a businesslike pragmatism.

Can Tillerson Get a Handle on Russia?

Quid debemos cogitare? (What ought we think?) The Trump administration recognizes the Russian Federation’s significant presence in Syria and its influence with the Assad regime as well aa other countries that support it there. Its strong connection to the regime was enough to convince the Obama administration to accept Russia’s proposal to remove and destroy the Assad regime’s chemical weapons arsenal to avoid threatened military action by the US. Assad long ago was relegated to cameo appearances on the world stage via news media interviews. His cooperation could never be assured, and his treachery was assumed. Tillerson went into Russia to express concerns over Moscow’s continued insouciance toward Assad’s actions against his own people, non combatants. He wanted to learn firsthand the rationale behind Moscow’s willingness to endure international ridicule and rebuke in response to its friendship with the Assad regime, and what might prompt a decision to end that era. From Moscow’s perspective, the Trump administration’s approach to Russia in any direction must reflect the desire to hammer out a deal, not demand one. The insistence of Obama administration officials to take such an aggressive approach in talks with Russia more than anything served to disrupt the US-Russia relationship. Efforts by US officials diplomats and officials to threaten and cajole, as Moscow perceived talks, were more than just displays of a lack of diplomatic tact and maturity, they were viewed as threatening. Opinions expressed by former Obama administration officials on how the cruise missile strikes could be used as leverage in diplomatic talks with the Russian Federation appear to reflect the approach which Moscow found so unappealing. Antony Blinken, former US Deputy Secretary of State and Principal Deputy National Security Adviser in the Obama White House, reportedly told Reuters: “The US strike–ordered less than three days after the gas attack–could make it clear to Russia that the United States will hold Moscow accountable for Assad.”  Reuters also quoted Blinken as saying, “Tillerson ought to be ‘very matter of fact’ in his meetings, sending Russia a message that: “If you don’t rein him in, we will take further action.” Evelyn Farkas, a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia, assured Reuters that “Securing a Russian commitment on eliminating Assad’s chemical weapons is likely to be first on his agenda.”

For hours after Tillerson’s arrival in Moscow, it was uncertain if Putin would even meet with him because of the tense state of relations. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, held out the possibility of a meeting once Tillerson arrived, saying any meeting would depend on the nature of Tillerson’s talks at the Foreign Ministry. Tillerson, unfazed by any of those developments, went forward with his meeting Lavrov, the metronome of Russian foreign policy and diplomacy.  The meeting lasted for three hours. Tillerson eventually got the call to come meet with Putin, and left the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for Red Square around 5:00PM local time. That meeting lasted for two hours. All that is publicly known about the content of Tillerson’s April 12, 2017 meetings with Lavrov and Putin, has been gleaned from remarks and responses heard at the post meeting press conference. On April 6, 2017, Tillerson expressed the view that Russia had “failed in its responsibility” to remove Syria’s chemical weapons under a 2013 agreement, which he argued showed Russia was either complicit with the gas attacks or “simply incompetent.” At the April 12th press conference, a journalist’s’ question on the matter enabled Tillerson to clarify that statement. He replied: “With respect to Russia’s complicity or knowledge of the chemical weapons attack, we have no firm information to indicate that there was any involvement by Russia, Russian forces, into this attack. What we do know–and  we have very firm and high confidence in our conclusion–is that the attack was planned and carried out by the regime forces at the direction of Bashar al-Assad.” When Tillerson was asked about his conversations with President Putin on Syria, he replied: “Well, we did discuss at length the future role for Assad, whether it be in a future political process or not. Clearly, our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and they have again brought this on themselves with their conduct of the war these past few years. We discussed our view that Russia, as their closest ally in the conflict, perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality. We do think it’s important that Assad’s departure is done in an orderly way so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution. How that occurs, we leave that to the process going forward. We do not think one has to occur before the other can begin. And it will take a pace of its own. But the final outcome in our view does not provide for a role for the Assad–for Assad or for the Assad family in the future governance of Syria. We do not think the international community will accept that. We do not think the world will accept that.” Tillerson without question made it clear in his meetings that it would not be business as usual in US-Russian relations. His hope is to make things much better.

This was not Tillerson’s first meeting with Lavrov. On February 20, 2017, during the G-20 Meeting in Bonn, Germany, they met briefly and discussed what Tillerson referred to as “a range of issues of mutual concern.” Tillerson had met with Putin and senior Russian officials previously to secure oil deals while serving as the Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil. In appreciation of his efforts to broker a deal between ExxonMobil as the state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft, on June 21, 2013, Putin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors a foreigner can be bestowed by Russia. (He was presented the award in St. Petersburg, Russia, along with the Chairman of ENI, an Italian multinational oil and gas company.) However, that occurred in the past. Tillerson is not, and will not, give any of that much importance now. At the April 12, 2017 meeting, Moscow discovered that as US Secretary of State, he is certainly not a Trump apparatchik. He approaches foreign policy issues with a businesslike pragmatism. He is very professional, very disciplined. He speaks frankly with a no-nonsense demeanor that might discomfit some. Tillerson barely registered a reaction when he was initially greeted by Lavrov with remarks denouncing the US missile strike on Syria as illegal and the accusation that the US was behaving unpredictably. When later asked by a Russian reporter how he would characterize the talks, Lavrov replied with a hint of both satisfaction and curiosity: “The State Secretary did not threaten me with sanctions. He didn’t threaten me with anything, actually. We frankly discussed the questions which were on our agenda . . . .”

A significant achievement of the talks was an agreement to establish a working group of US State Department and Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials charged with addressing smaller issues, which Lavrov called “irritants which have dogged our relations over the last couple of years,” and make progress toward stabilizing the relationship. That will allow Tillerson and Lavrov a freer hand to address urgent issues. They agreed to consider further proposals concerning the way forward in Syria; the respective allies and coalition partners of both countries would be consulted on the matter. There would be continued discussions directed at finding a solution to the Syrian conflict. Lavrov said Putin had agreed to reactivate an air-safety agreement, a de-confliction memorandum, concerning Russian Federation and US-led coalition air operations over Syria. Moscow suspended it after the US cruise missile strikes. Before its next contact with the Trump administration, Moscow will undoubtedly consider what cooperative role the US could play that would allow for the full exploitation of its capabilities in the anti-ISIS effort. Yet, if Moscow wants to cooperate with the Trump administration on Syria, it must create an environment that will facilitate such cooperation. For the moment, the transition of Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. If the Trump administration ever decided to cooperate with Russia on Syria, it would signal its acceptance of Assad’s presidency as it is Russia’s policy to fully support it. However, to believe that might happen is to deny reality. Assad is at Russia’s disposition. A final decision on how to handle him will need to be made soon.

Through the April 12, 2017 talks, an agreement to establish a working group of US State Department and Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials charged with addressing smaller issues of concern and help stabilize the relationship. They agreed to consider further proposals concerning the way forward in Syria and consult respective allies and coalition partners of both countries on the matter. Discussions directed at finding a solution to the Syrian conflict would be continued. Putin agreed to reactivate an air-safety agreement concerning Russian and US-led coalition air operations over Syria.

Russia: Beware of Assad

Secrete amicos admone, lauda palam. (Admonish your friends in secret, praise [them] openly.) No international conference, no guarantees from Russia to keep him in check, no surgical procedure even, could make Assad palatable to the West at this point, or to any government in the Middle East other than Iran. Assad should not be seen as Russia’s proxy. By 2015, Assad appeared to lack the ability to remain in power against ISIS and perhaps US-backed Syrian Opposition forces. The military situation began recurvate after Russia, with the urging of Iran, moved its forces into Syria in September 2015 and supported Syrian military operations. Assad can only be useful to Russia as a figurehead, a symbol of resistance to the opposition and ISIS. In time, it may make sense to his benefactors to him with a leader who would be more acceptable among the Syrians.

Reconstruction will be another huge hurdle for Russia to overcome. Lacking any significant resources from the US and the rest of the international community to rebuild, the only viable long-term goal in Moscow would likely be to convert Syria into a very large version of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Donetsk People’s Republic, and the Luhansk People’s Republic. It would receive the recognition of very few countries, but not the US or major powers of Europe. Syria would in many ways would be shut off from the rest of the world. Even if it received a decent amount of economic aid from the Western countries and international organizations as the UN, the World Bank, or international Monetary Fund, Syria may never see an economic upturn. After observing the effects of few months of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns, Damascus might recognize that Moscow truly cannot support Syria in a way that would allow for its rebuilding. The situation would only worsen if pressure was placed on Russia over Syria through future sanctions.

Looking at the situation through Assad’s prism, it clear that he does not like or accept the idea that he is a factotum, a convenient tool for Moscow and Tehran. He may very well be able to convince himself that his regime and his sect, the Alawites, are large enough and strong enough to deter any possible attempt by current power friends and military allies time remove him from power. Assad will not allow his reign to come to an ignominious end. There would be a final demonstration of his power. He will make a stand or lash out before he goes. His concealed stockpiles of chemical weapons would even allow him to strike his allies with some effect. Indeed, Assad may believe that having those weapons at hand may be playing a role in deterring the few allies he has from turning against him. People with the most absolute power in history have tried to hold on by their fingernails knowing when they let go, all will be gone. They have often self-destructed. Misused power is always built upon lies. Tyrannical figures redefine what exists into projections of their egos. There are no noble thoughts. They become wrapped up in themselves. Assad seems to find pleasure in what is evil. As time goes on, the more tragic he becomes as a figure. The cruise missile strikes by the Trump administration may very well have initiated a discourse in Moscow on how to: better handle the remnants of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and how to defeat their use against Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria. Such discussions would likely take place in tandem with any on preventing burgeoning, positive relations with the US from being ruined by Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons. Mali sunt in nostro numero et de exilo bonorum virorum cogitant. (There are evil men in our number [our midst] and they are thinking about the destruction of good men.)

Assad (above) will not allow his reign to come to an ignominious end. He will make a stand before he goes. Concealed stockpiles of chemical weapons would allow him strike out even at his allies with some effect. He may believe as long as he has such weapons at hand, he is able to deter the few allies that he has from turning against him. Given the threat his chemical weapons actually pose to Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria, Trump’s action may have started a discourse in Moscow on how to handle Assad weapons and prevent him from poisoning burgeoning relations with the US by using them.

The Way Forward

In Act I, Scene i of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, elderly King Lear in ancient Britain is deciding to give up his power and divide his realm amongst his three daughters, Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril. He declares the daughter who can profess her love for him the most will receive the largest share. While he hoped Cordelia, his favorite would win, she refuses to play, offering a desultory response. Enraged, Lear disowns Cordelia accepting the soupy, excessive declarations of Reagan and Goneril who consequently set out to kill him. Before leaving the palace with the King of France, Cordelia having an intimation of the danger her sisters posed to Lear, states: “Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides: Who cover faults, at last shame them derides. Well may you prosper!” The prognosis for the long-term survival of Assad’s presidency is not good. Today, many still believe Putin’s relationship with Assad is indissoluble. Quite often, Putin displays choreographed support for Assad. However, sometimes conditions can change to such a degree that one’s position must be altered. Patriotism permeates everything that Putin does. While not actually articulated, Putin has subtly promoted the concept of “Russia First”, a guiding principle similar in many ways to Trump’s “America First”. Putin will not subordinate the interests of the Russian people to those of another country, regardless of friendships, partnerships, or alliances. Putin would be remiss if he ignored big opportunities that would benefit Russia’s long-term interests. Assad would unlikely react well to even the prospect of a “shift” in his relationship with Russia.

Moscow apparently sought to steal a march on the incoming Trump administration by getting to know its likely senior officials, understanding Trump’s intentions, and predicting the administration’s movements in advance. Yet, deciphering Trump proved to be a difficult task. It appears what Moscow knew about the administration as it took the reigns of power amounted to guesswork or nonsense from poor sources. Much of what Moscow observed and encountered from the administration came as a surprise. Praise for Trump initially heard from certain political quarters in Moscow transformed into rebuke. Yet, through contacts between officials of both countries an authentic understanding of Trump began to take shape among Russian foreign policy decision makers and Putin. Those in Moscow au courant with the public discourse in the US on Trump know that harsh criticism is the “popular” reaction. They may also have discerned that the psychology of defective pride was in play when hearing those in the US considered foreign policy experts reproach Trump. Trump is not the imprudent actor those experts want him to be. Trump’s intellect is the type that builds modern cities. Moscow must ignore all the approbation in the background and prevent it from insinuating itself into analyses. That will facilitate Moscow’s efforts to sort things out regarding the Trump administration and become more comfortable in dealing with it. On Syria, relations between the US and Russia are improving. The US approach is not to elbow a better position for itself on the matter, but rather to have Russia acknowledge its responsibilities regarding the war-torn country. It is the most prestigious and powerful player fighting in support of the Syrian Government. As such, it must take on the role of guiding Syria to peace. Russia is not on the sidelines and not in a position to retreat in that direction. Although only Trump and and Putin can respectively prescribe duties to Tillerson and Lavrov, this is a matter that demands their cooperation. Whenever some resolution to the matter might be found, it is nearly certain that Assad will be the last to know about it. Haec omnia vulnera belli tibi nunc sananda sunt. (All these wounds of war must be healed by you now.)

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