US-Led Military Strikes in Syria Were a Success: Was a Correlative Political Warfare Success Achieved, Too?

Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad (left) and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right). Given all that transpired in Syria surrounding the US, United Kingdom, and French military strikes, Putin, Assad and their respective senior advisers may very well have begun to ask questions about future of relations between their countries. Relations between Moscow and Damascus may have begun moving in a new direction to the dissatisfaction and disappointment of Putin, and the dismay and anger of Assad.

Correlative effects can result from airstrikes, cruise missile strikes, drone strikes, and artillery attacks. Those effects could include damage to surrounding structures, or could mean unfortunate harm to civilians, in or near a target struck. Correlative effects can sometimes include shaping the attitude and behavior of an opponent targeted, his ability think, what he thinks, his ability to fight, and even his interactions with individuals with which he is allied or tenuously unified can be others. A correlative result of the April 13, 2018 US, United Kingdom, and French military strikes in Syria may have been a hard blow upon the ties between Russia and Syria. Indeed, perhaps far more was accomplished by that US-led coalition than the Trump administration could have imagined. On April 13, 2018, US military forces, acting in coordination with military forces from the United Kingdom and France, took decisive action against the chemical weapons infrastructure of the Syria Arab Republic. It was in response to an April 7, 2018 chemical weapons attack against his own citizens in Douma. According to the Trump administration, the US has vital national interests in averting a worsening catastrophe in Syria, and specifically deterring the use and proliferation of chemical weapons. The military strikes took out “the heart” of the Syrian chemical weapons enterprise, but there were other facilities that were not struck due to concerns about civilian casualties. He declined to say exactly how much of the chemical weapons program was taken out. US Defense Secretary James Mattis explained that the strikes were “a one-time shot.” US Marine Corps Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff, explained in an April 18, 2018 press conference at the Pentagon that the US carefully plotted out the strength, length of time, and target set of the strikes. Efforts were made to minimize the potential for chemical weapons to leak out of the facilities, with McKenzie saying “we believe we successfully mitigated” the risk. He explained that while it is possible that some material and people were moved from the site in the lead-up to the attack, there were certain pieces of equipment that the regime would not have been able to relocate. McKenzie acknowledged that the three sites did not represent the totality of the Syrian chemical weapons program known to the US. However, McKenzie and Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White emphasized that future strikes in the region could not be ruled out, saying that it is entirely up to the Assad regime. They went on to explain that the use of chemical weapons in the future could lead to more strikes.

After everything, Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad sits ostensibly in relative safety and comfort in Damascus as the leader of all of Syria, even though he only controls a small part of the country’s territory. He only holds on to that with the assistance of Russia and Iran. Even more, he wields as much power as Russia will grant him to wield. To observers, there appears to be a blindness in Moscow about Assad. Yet, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is well aware of his Syrian counterpart’s merits and deficits. He has an intellectual understanding of Assad, his habits, his ways. Indeed, at this point, Putin, with albeit some effort, very likely can track his thoughts, and likely has intimations about his moves whenever he thinks about Syria. For some, the optics of their interactions would support the idea that Assad is something akin to a ventriloquist’s dummy for Putin. Others would insist that they have a strong personal bond. Imdeed, there are Western foreign policy analysts and scholars would go as far as to say the relationship with Assad is indissoluble. Putin would likely assert that the two men simply have a better than average friendly rapport based on mutual interests and military, diplomatic, and economic arrangements. It would be practically impossible for the truly experienced not to see that in their relationship, Putin is the top, the leader, the senior party and Assad is the bottom, the follower, the junior party. Often, Putin displays choreographed support for Assad. When relationships are built on mutual interests and useful arrangements, and not a higher bond, sometimes conditions can change to such a degree that the relationship might be altered or ended.

Given all that transpired in Syria surrounding the US, United Kingdom, and French military strikes. Putin, Assad and their senior advisers may very well have begun to ask questions about future of relations between their countries. The interior thoughts, emotions officials in Moscow and Damascus play an important role in all that is happening with Syria. There was nothing but negative feedback for Assad regarding Putin. Assad likely had no doubt that Putin would stand with him against the West. Yet, as the Western military strikes were executed on April 13, 2018, Assad watched as Putin did nothing. The lesson for Assad was that he should not be so trusting of Russia and his other somewhat powerful allies. After all, when desires action from them, he has almost no way to aafely shape their behavior. While Assad did not publicly brood over what transpired on April 13th, he was likely resentful and bitter about it. Postulating that the military strikes in Syria were designed to have the effect of sowing seeds of mistrust and dissent between Russia and Syria would go a bit beyond conjecture. However, there may have been coincidental, correlative political warfare effects resulting from the April 13th military strikes. A glut of information about Assad is held by the intelligence services of the US, United Kingdom, and France. Amid what has been collected is undoubtedly information about the dynamics of Assad’s relationship with Putin. It may confirm that their relationship is now a bit different. The tons of information coming in from Syria may be at a constipation point. Information of that sort may not have been synthesised yet. Nothing has been made public or provided newsmedia reports on whether the April 13, 2018 military strikes had either a deliberate or correlative effect of rocking the boat between Moscow and Damascus has been produced. Still, one can ruminate, outside of the box, that a ball may have begun rolling in a new direction to the dissatisfaction and disappointment of Putin, and the dismay and anger of Assad. The possibility that the relationship may take a new direction is briefly examined here. Opinionis enim commenta delet dies, naturae judicia confirmat. (Time destroys the figments of the imagination, while confirming judgments of nature [God].)

Assad (left) and Putin (right). From all that is publicly known, scoring a political warfare victory was not part of the concept and intent of the US. Unless one was involved in the planning of the military strike, it would be impossible to posit with certainty that some consideration was given to how the military strikes would affect the Russia-Syria relationship. Still the features of a political warfare effort, even if coincidental, are discernible.

Detecting Political Warfare

Again, from all that is publicly known, scoring a political warfare victory was not part of the concept and intent of the US and did not factor into the planning of the military strikes in Syria. Unless one was involved in the planning of the military strike, it would be impossible to posit with certainty that some consideration was given to how the military strikes would affect the Russia-Syria relationship. Still the features of a political warfare effort, even if coincidental, are discernible. Under a definition offered by the RAND Corporation, political warfare consists of the international use of one or more of the implements of power–diplomatic, information, military, and economic–to affect the political composition of decision making within a state. Political warfare is often, yet not necessarily, carried out covertly, but must be carried out outside the context of traditional war. In the broadest sense, it could take the form of anything other than military operations. It could for example include: economic subversion, propaganda–not tied to the military effort, psychological warfare–as part of a military effort; conditional aid to a state; aid to political parties; aid to resistance groups; political accommodation; and, assassination. Renown security affairs analyst Brian Jenkins of the RAND Corporation explains that political warfare reverses the famous dictum of the 19th century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz that “war is the extension of politics by other means,” political warfare is the extension of armed conflict by other means. Political warfare does not focus exclusively on enemies who are at large or end with their capture. It targets those on their way in to enemy ranks, those who might be persuaded to quit, and those in custody. Political warfare sees the enemy not as a monolithic force, but as a dynamic population of individuals whose grievances, sense of humiliation, and desire for revenge, honor, status, meaning, or mere adventure propel them into jihad and resistance. Political warfare accepts no foe as having irrevocably crossed a line, but sees enemy combatants as constantly calibrating and recalibrating their commitment. It sees every prisoner not merely as a source of operational intelligence, but as a potential convert. Political warfare is infinitely flexible and ferociously pragmatic. It accepts local accommodations to reduce violence, offers amnesties to induce divisions and defections, and cuts deals to co-opt enemies.

Until recently, things have typically gone relatively well between Putin and Assad. There has rarely been reason for them to think too negatively of one another. However, as circumstances develop in which their perspectives grow in variance on matters of mutual concern. The atmosphere has already changed a bit. It will change even more if Assad decides to use chemical weapons again. Common wisdom in the West is that Assad would unlikely use chemical weapons again, not because his known chemical capability has been denigrated, not because he has been punished him excessively, but because Assad, according to Western thinking, Assad has already won the war with the assistance of Russia and Iran. Dropping more chemical weapons would have no strategic value any Western military analysts can think of. Moreover, it would not make sense to incur the wrath of the US and other Western powers as a result of using such weapons. All of that being stated, it appears the West must learn over and over again that Assad thinks differently than most national leaders, and military analysts as well. Assad has embraced his role as a tyrant. He is concerned mainly with holding power. In his conscious or unconscious mind, he may be haunted by the fear of facing retribution for violent acts ordered in defense of his power and atrocities committed against his own people. Everyone does not think the same and Assad is a perfect example of that. Putin, however, is certainly aware of how different Assad is.

The chief foreign linkage of Syria under Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, before him, have been the Russian Federation and the Soviet Union, respectively. The present Assaf has been useful to Russia as a figurehead, a symbol of resistance to the Syrian opposition, ISIS and Islamic terrorist groups  and the West.  He is undoubtedly viewed in Moscow as Putin’s man, and his ball to play with. It was the strength and realities of those ties between Damascus and Moscow  that were poorly considered when the US injected itself in Syria in support of the anti-Assad opposition movement during the Arab Spring in 2011. By the Fall 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.

It is interesting how Putin and Assad, two men from desperate backgrounds have established a very positive relationship that goes beyond mutual courtesy and civility. Putin rose from humble beginnings, raised by a mother and father who respectively managed to survive the siege of Leningrad and violent battles during World War II. Assad, on the other hand, was the privileged, eldest son of the former President of Syria, General Hafez Al-Assad, who ruled from 1971 to 2000. Putin completed his studies in law at Leningrad University before embarking on a successful career in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. Along with the well-earned praise of his colleagues and positive evaluations from his superiors, he had a record of service that led others to support his rise to the pinnacle of power in Russia. Assad was educated as a doctor, trained as a surgeon, and lived a comforrable life in London before being called home to take the reigns in Syria after his father’s death. Indeed, one man, Putin, was self-made, with his knowledge and capabilities shaped and polished by every obstacle and adversity he managed to overcome. The other man, Assad, had everything in life laid out in front of him, and there were few character shaping struggles. Ignis aurum probat, miseria fortes viros. (Fire provides proof of gold, misery, proof of strong men.)

In crafting a fruitful relationship with Assad, Putin seems to have handled him much as he would have handled an operative during his days in the intelligence industry. During his one-on-one contacts with Assad he has likely spent time motivating, befriending, briefing, advising, counselling, debriefing, and perhaps paying and welfaring him. It has served to establish the bridge between them. It is the sort of interaction to which Putin is attracted. It has helped to shape the dynamic and apparent congenial nature of their exchanges. It is likely that somewhere, Putin keeps notes that are part of a personal study of Assad. At age 65, Putin as a man and a leader, and in terms of capabilities and shrewdness, is far more advanced than Assad who is 52. For Putin, there certainly would be advantage in maintaining the relationship as is, if he can. There is an expediency in working with something, someone that you understand, who has been predictable. It is hard to imagine Putin might be overly concerned with Assad’s feelings. Yet, while Putin might only relate to other leaders much as strangers on a train, his relationship with Assad has been something more. In all the years until this point, whenever he met with Assad, they likely simply picked up wherever they leave off. Assad was granted a ticket to the high table international affairs by Putin. Contrarily, Assad cannot do much independently to enhance Putin’s life.

Putin (left) and Assad (right). In crafting a fruitful relationship with Assad, Putin seems to have handled him much as he would have handled an operative during his days in the intelligence industry. During his one-on-one contacts with Assad, he has likely spent time motivating, befriending, briefing, advising, counselling, debriefing, and perhaps paying him. It has served to establish a bridge between them.

Putin almost never fails to publicly cover Assad’s actions that reach the world’s gaze. He has supported Assad with strong words, diplomatic maneuvering at the UN and bilaterally with a handful of receptive countries, mostly it neighbors. He has of course, supported him by deploying Russian military forces to his country to protect his regime. Moscow’s initial response to the Assad’s chemical attacks in Douma was a grand denial that the Assad regime had anything to do with it. Russia, a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, sought to fight fire with oil, giving credence to the idea that Assad did not and would not use chemical weapons and the entire matter was a hoax. This was made worse by Russia’s futile attempt make the investigation of the chemical attacks a joint venture in which Russia would work alongside the UN Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) at the site of the attack and in their research labs. It must not be forgotten that Assad should not have access to chemical weapons at all, but an intriguing diplomatic tact taken by Moscow in 2013 left the door open to that. On September 14, 2013, Moscow and Washington reached an agreement under which Russia guaranteed Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and all equipment for producing, mixing, and filing chemical weapons would be destroyed before the end of the first half of 2014. The OPCW would implement the agreement.  The genesis of the agreement was an August 21, 2013 chemical attack by the Assad regime against several towns of the Ghouta agricultural belt to the West and East of Damascus.  Reportedly the administration of US President Barack Obama was nearing a decision to launch US-led punitive strikes against Syria. A suggestion was made by the US Secretary of State John Kerry stated offhandedly at a press conference on September 9, 2013 that the US might not conduct military strikes if Assad placed Syria’s enture chemical weapons stockpile under international control within a week. Hours after that statement, Russian Federation Foreign Minister managed to have Syrian Arab Republic Foreign Minister Walid Muallem agree to the idea. On April 13, 2018, and back on April 6, 2017, the Trump administration, based on clear and convincing evidence took action against Assad contrary to decision of the Obama administration when it had the opportunity. Most importantly, however, action had to be taken because both Russia and Syria clearly failed to meet their responsibility under the 2013 agreement. There has been little no mention of the September 14, 2013 agreement by Moscow or Damascus after the April 13, 2018 chemical attacks. Moreover, rather expressing of concern over the use of chemical weapons, as could be expected, prevarications emanated from Moscow and Damascus concerning the attacks.

Moscow also made false claims that the majority of cruise missiles fired into Syria were shot down. Russian news outlets, as well as social media from the region, had claimed as many as 70 percent of coalition weapons were shot down by Syrian or Russian air defenses. But the Russian systems did not attempt to intercept the incoming weaponry, and the Syrian system launched around 40 surface to air missiles after the last targeted weapon hit its target, Referring to this type of activity by Moscow as information warfare perhaps gives it too much respectability as its purpose is to position it as master of the mob: anti-US, anti-EU, anti-West, and pro-Russian elements worldwide. Even Moscow must realize that in each case, all of its falsehoods would be overcome by the truth over time. Assad clearly had no concern over having frightful clouds hang over himself for atrocities committed before and during the Syrian War. There is not much that could further vulgarize his reputation. From experience of the Soviet Union as well as that of their own Russian Federation, officials in Moscow should have learned that the wounds Russia’s image suffers from such antics are all self-inflicted, deleterious, and all very unnecessary. Russia is reduced to a level akin to a “Fourth World” dictatorship, a so-called “Banana Republic”, when it prevaricates on matters concerning the US.

Every time Moscow distorts the truth, it confirms the worst about itself. The ugly image many policy makers, decision makers, and analyst in the West long since have had seared in their minds about Russia are reinforced. Few anywhere in the world can be confident what’ Moscow says is true, except those willing to be deceived. When Putin and his officials make claims on other occasions to the effect that Russia is a land of the mind, this questionable behavior, along with a lot of other things, puts that notion in doubt.

Intriguingly, Moscow puts significant effort into improving its image as a world leader, yet undermines that effort by backing Assad and destroying its image in the minds of many. There are consequences to the way one lives. He who walks with wise men will be wise, but a companion of fools will be destroyed. On April 11, 2018, Trump wrote on Twitter: “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”, referring to Moscow’s alliance with Assad. Assad, by his actions, has repeatedly immobilized Putin. He is left unable to smoothly move on to better things. If there are future chemical attacks by Assad, it is uncertain what the future of his relationship with Putin will be. A number possible scenarios exist based on questions Putin and Assad might ask themselves as well as steps they might take as the situation between them develops. Those steps would likely fall under the category of political warfare.

US President Donald Trump (above). It is intriguing to observe Moscow put significant effort into improving its image as a world leader, and then undermine that effort by lending unwavering support to Assad after he has acted against the norms of civilized world. On April 11, 2018, Trump wrote on Twitter: “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”, referring to Moscow’s tie with Assad. By his actions, Assad immobilizes Putin, leaving him unable to move on to better things.

Is Assad Worth the Trouble?: Scenario for Putin

Due to flaws in his government, his own deficiencies as a leader, and perhaps a lack of empathy, Assad failed to spare the people of the old ills of war and crime. Without the support of Putin and Russia, one could reasonably conclude that Assad would have been brushed aside awhile ago. Indeed, in 2015, Assad appeared to lack the ability to remain in power against both ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups and the US-backed Syrian Opposition forces. Policy makers and decision makers in Moscow and Tehran doubted Assad could hold on to power in Damascus without assistance. They mainly feared the real possibility that Syria would fall in the hands of ISIS. One could only imagine what would have been needed to regain and retain control of the country if ISIS had forced the regime out of Damascus. Putin provided a rational for Russia’s intervention in Syria in a speech at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, on September 15, 2015. In response to Western criticism of Russia’s move, Putin explained, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” Putin noted the exodus of refugees toward Europe and the crisis in Syria was a result of the support foreign powers provided the Syria opposition rebels. He said, “I would like to note that people are fleeing Syria because of the military actions that were largely imposed externally by deliveries of weapons and other special equipment. People are fleeing to escape the atrocities committed by terrorists.” Putin went on to state, “[The refugees] are fleeing from radicals, above all. And if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been even greater.”

Speaking to Western and Arab capitals, Putin declared, “We must sideline geopolitical ambitions, refrain from so-called double standards, from the policy of direct use of separate terrorist groups to achieve opportunistic goals, including the change of governments and regime that may be disagreeable to whomever.” Concerning Assad, Putin relayed that he might be willing to enter a power-sharing agreement with opposition but that the fight against terrorism was the priority. To that extent, Putin explained, “The Islamic State is providing ideological indoctrination and training to fighters from different countries including, unfortunately European countries and the Russian Federation, and many former Soviet republics. And of course, we are worried with the possibility of them returning to our territories.” As explained in a December 30, 2015 greatcharlie post, commanders of the Russian Federation Armed Forces reportedly believed the military objective of any ground operations in Syria should first be to create a regime stronghold in what is referred to as “Useful Syria” (Suriya al-Mufida) from Damascus up to Aleppo through Homs. That would require Russia and its allies to sweep up the Western part of Syria. The objective was to take pressure off Latakia, a pro-Assad, Alawite heartland and locale of an important airfield and take pressure off Tartus, a long-time Soviet Naval port passed on to the Russian Federation Navy. It is key for the delivery of military material to Russian and Syrian forces and important for the conduct of military operations in support of Syria. After reaching Latakia, Russia and its allies would turn toward Idlib. Part of the force could have pushed farther north to gain control of the Syrian-Turkish border west of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) territory, blocking the US coalition and ISIS from access to it. In an additional phase of their offensive, Russia and its allies would press eastward. A key objective was to take Palmyra from ISIS and the oil and gas resources around it. Russia began to gain control of the situation on the ground in Syria soon after deploying significant forces there in September 2015. At this point, the fight to secure “Useful Syria” has essentially been won. Syria, however, is still reliant upon a military and security umbilical cord tied from Moscow to Damascus.

Discord obtains when things get mixed up. Assad would likely disagree with any assessment that described him as a follower, or stated that his existence is contingent upon Russian power. He would likely describe himself as partner with Putin and other leaders and that Syria is working jointly with its allies. It is imaginable that Assad believes he is delegating part of the job of using military power to defeat Syria’s enemies to Russia and others. For Assad, all arrows point his way, for he almost always thinks and acts in terms of self-interest. Assad would likely proffer that Syria in the aggregate has the capability and capacity fend off threats to its security. Trouble comes when Assad sets out to confirm his thinking with heinous acts of violence, such as the chemical weapons attacks, which he knows are antithetical to norms of the civilized world, counter international law, and in defiance of demands made of his regime by the UN Security Council through resolutions. Assad apparently has much to prove to his fellow countryman, to other regional leaders, to his allies such as Russia, and the rest of the world. When he has lashed out, and he has done so regularly during the war, he proves that he is truly a despot. Errare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum. (To err is human, to persist in it, is diabolical.)

Assad (left), Putin (center), and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (right). Commanders of the Russian Federation Armed Forces reportedly believed the military objective of any ground operations in Syria should first be to create a regime stronghold in what is referred to as “Useful Syria.” Once Russian forces moved into Syria in September 2015, the military situation began to recurvate. The fight to secure “Useful Syria” has essentially been won. Syria, however, is still reliant upon a military and security umbilical cord with Russia.

In Syria, the Assad regime, through an unending propaganda campaign, projects an image of its president in a way in which he is in firm control. That image also serves to assure the Syrian people that they still live in a sovereign state and that they have control over their own destiny. That image is completely inaccurate. Yet, there is little in Syria to interfere with that imaginative process as the government has strict control over media. True, Syrians can see that Putin has provided thousands of Russian advisers, troops and airmen who are engaged in daily operations to fend off and destroy the regimes adversaries. Yet, Syrians supportive of the Assad regime would likely assure that the tie between their leader and Putin was unbreakable. Rather than feel threatened, they, in fact, welcome Russia’s presence and taken refuge in the umbrella of the added security provided by the Russians. They are happy to believe they need not fear for their survival as long Putin and Russia are working hand in hand with their country. Simultaneously, those same Syrian’s would argue that Assad is still the real power in Syria. Moreover, they are likely ignorant or unconcerned with the problems Assad’s actions have caused Russia. Vivit et est vitae nescius ipse suae. (Man lives in ignorance of his own life.)

Assad very likely believes his self-crafted, virtual image truly mirrors his real life. Looking at newsmedia video clips of Assad in Damascus, one might be bemused by the artificial size of his life. Syria is an authoritarian regime ruled by Assad much as, but albeit far less orderly and competently than his father before him. Politically, Syria is an odd hybrid, a quasi-national socialist, Islamic state. Assad is accepted by his beloved Alawites as well as elites from his own Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, other like-minded political groupings, business leaders, and leadership of the Armed forces and the security services. The People’s Council–the national legislature of Syria–and the Syrian judicial system cannot even provide a fig leaf of democracy for Assad regime. Syria’s elites appear satisfied with conditions in “Useful Syria”. It is something akin to a kingdom of gold for them. The coffers of Syria have serve the purposes of the elites and Assad. It is a type of larceny Assad inherited from his father. Those in Syria who have money, power are celebrities, heroes of the society, having what the majority can never attain. The Presidential Palace on Mount Mezzah is emblematic of Assad’s efforts to provide a venir of prosperity and power over a broken country in unimaginable suffering has visited countless homes.

None could doubt at this point that the life, happiness of the common man means nothing in Assad’s Syria. Assad does not have the type of government that elevates human beings. Assad has never used his words or events in the outside world to encourage Syrian to raise themselves up, to be more, to accomplish more. Assad uses words to stimulate nationalism, to cause Syrians to accept that the source of their country’s problems is the aggressive, greedy, external world, the West as opposed to any cause that comes from within, such as himself. An appropriate understanding among all Syrians about of what is happening in Syria will never be obtained as long as they are fed contradictory or insufficient facts. Even if the “have nots” in proximity of elites demanded some changes, an almost inexhaustible number of agencies among the security services would subdue them, punish those who do not revere the masters of their society. When the war is over, Syrians who can, would like to love the simpler lives they had once before. Syrians want to return to Assad’s version of peace and tranquility: the peace of submission to the regime; the tranquility of working in a secure position within the narrow confines of the regime’s dictates. Assad’s vision for future of Syria is most likely based on self-interest, his own well-being. The hope that anchors him is that he will remain in power, and the problems that have seized him since the civil war in Syria began in 2011 would eventually go away. Est enim unum ius quo deuincta est hominum societas et quod lex constituit una, quae lex est recta ratio imperandi atque prohibendi. Quam qui ignorat, is est iniusta s, siue est illa scripta uspiam siue nusquam. (For there is but one essential justice which cements society, and one law which establishes this justice. This law is right reason, which is the true rule of all commandments and prohibitions. Whoever neglects this law, whether written or unwritten, is necessarily unjust and wicked.)

Perhaps it would not be judged as a fair comparison, but compared with countries in the West, Syria could hardly be viewed as a normal, functioning, sovereign country. A sovereign country that cannot defend its borders is not authentically sovereign. Moreover, Syria could be labelled derelict given the condition of most of its towns and cities. To Putin, who, unlike Assad, is thinking realistically about the future of Syria, it is very apparent that reconstruction in Syria will be another huge hurdle to overcome. The bellwether of Syria’s future condition can be observed in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Donetsk People’s Republic, and the Luhansk People’s Republic. Lacking any significant resources from the US and the rest of the international community to rebuild, that would be the only viable long-term condition that Syria could reach with Moscow’s assistance alone. Syria would simply become a larger version of those political, economic, and social disasters. Few other countries or international organizations appear willing to dive in to help Syria with signigicant financial assistance or investment. Few countries are in a rush to reopen or fully staff their embassies in Syria. They most lilely believe there would no benefit, but only difficulties in working with Assad. As a result, the Syrian people are shut off from those in the rest of the world who might be able to truly help them.

Optimists would hold out some hope that the situation would improve. However, 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. Manipulations that might ordinarily knock things back on track with Assad would likely have been exhausted or be seen as useless. It may be safe to say the Assad will never develop, never change. Luckily for Moscow, Assad is actually at its disposition. Given the strong influence Russia has on the Assad regime’s main elements of his power, the Syrian Arab Armed Forces and the security services, at the very least, the effort might be made to remder Assad’s presidency symbolic. In a more virile approach, Russia, perhaps in sync with Syria’s foreign benefactors, might seek to replace Assad with a leader who would be more acceptable among the Syrians, more palatable for themselves. As far as Assad’s well-being was concerned, the basing arrangements for Russian naval, air, and ground forces, and the relationship developed with Putin would no longer have meaning.

Assad would likely disagree with any assessment that would describe him as a follower, or that his existence is contingent upon Russian power. He would likely describe himself as partner with Putin and other leaders and that Syria is working jointly with its allies. It is imaginable that Assad believes he is delegating part of the job of using military power to defeat Syria’s enemies to Russia and others. For Assad, all arrows point his way, as he nearly always thinks and acts in self-interest.

Keep the Status Quo or Assert Himself?: Scenario re Assad

So far, Assad has been able to have his cake and eat it, too! He has defiantly launched chemical weapons against his own people, while savoring the general protection and support of Russia and others. How long this situation will last is uncertain. Surely, the Russians will have a say in that. There are still a lot of hand shakes and pats on the back from Putin meant to encourage. Yet, a handshake or pat on the back cannot supplant rejection. It cannot correct a problem or resolve a serious disagreement.

If Assad were to sense an undercurrent of dissention toward him inside Syria, he would undoubtedly physically thin out the ranks of those he would deem potential plotters and replace them immediately with a more loyal sort. He would do so taking care not disturb the defined ecosystem of power elites, sending the message that he demands loyalty but avoid starting another uprising particularly among those who have supported him.

Such events would certainly catch the attention of the Russians. Assad might conclude that Moscow may see some benefit in aiding an group of Syrian elites willing to remove him. An “organic rebellion” that could remove Assad would be more agreeable to Putin and elites in Russia who might have already concluded that his removal will lead to more beneficial outcome of Russia’s investment there. He may fear that removing him under such conditions might be more understandable to tyrants in rogue regimes worldwide who may also rely upon Russia to back them with military force, some level of economic wherewithal or payments. However, Assad would not willingly step aside for a successor albeit selected by friendly, outside power, even if he had some say in who would replace him. He surely would not sit idly by as the plot developed to put his reign to an end.

Looking at the US, United Kingdom, and French military strikes in the aggregate, it somewhat understandable that some analysts doubt that Assad and his advisers in Damascus would be so spun up by them. The US-led coalition has conducted airstrikes in Syria against ISIS and targets threatening coalition ground forces for many months. The Israeli Air Force has conducted regular strikes in Syria so precise and effective and with impunity, that one could say with some humor that the Israelis were using parts of Syria as a bombing range. The issue is that the military strikes of April 13th were the second time the US has deliberately attacked Syrian targets and the second time Russia did not act. That is the rub. Prior to the Western military strikes, Russia urged the US to avoid taking military action in response to an alleged chemical attack in Syria. On April 10, 2018, the Russian Federation Permanent Representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzia stated: “I would once again beseech you to refrain from the plans that you’re currently developing.” He warned Washington that it will “bear responsibility” for any “illegal military adventure.” A threat from Moscow to down US missiles came from the Russian Federation’s Ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, who said his comments were based on previous statements by Putin and the Chief of Staff of the Russian Federation Armed Forces General Valery Gerasimov. The Russian Federation Armed Forces stated on March 13, 2018, that it would respond to any US strike on Syria by targeting any missiles and launchers involved. However, Russian air defense systems did not attempt to intercept the incoming weaponry, and the Syrian system launched around 40 surface to air missiles after the last targeted weapon hit its target, according to the Pentagon. The Pentagon noted that the S-400 systems were not turned off, simply not activated, leaving open the option their radar systems were used to tracking incoming threats but the weapons systems were not fired. The fact that those systems were active but not used may serve as evidence that the deconfliction line between the US and Russia, which was used to urge Russia not to escalate the situation, had been effective.

Within his own close circle in Damascus, it may very well be that Assad’s grievances are well-expressed. There may be lung busting exertions of his sense of being betrayed once again by Putin, driven by a nagging sense at this juncture that his relationship with him does not have much future. Assad may wish to take matters into his own hands. Seeing Assad interact with Russian emissaries in Damascus, he left little evidence of being riled emotionally by actions by his benefactors. The Interfax News Agency quoted Natalya Komarova, governor of Russia’s autonomous Khanty-Mansiysk district, made it a point to state: “President Assad was in absolutely positive spirits. He is in a good mood.,” To date, Assad has not publicly proffered any fevered dreams of conspiracy about the military strikes. His own officials and advisers are likely impressed by a type of controlled schizophrenia he displays. Nevertheless, the April 13th military strikes, and events surrounding them, may have set the stage for counteractions by Assad. It may very well be that Assad will launch additional chemical attacks to demonstrate that his regime does not feel threatened by US power, prove to himself that he is not being led by the nose by Putin, and ironically to pull Russia deeper into the situation as it has sought to full back by failing to act April 13th. To foreign policy and military analyst, it may all seem irrational, and that would be a reasonable response. Still, everyone does not think the same. Assad, the trained surgeon, has done so much that would be deemed improbable, it would seem counterintuitive to assume he will act in accord within any norms in the future. Scenarios for other ways in which Assad might seek retribution might include the following:

1) Assad might decide to establish some simulacrum of the US Lend-Lease arrangements of World War with China. Under it, China could possibly build its own military base or port. Assad could receive guarantees of significant assistance from China in Syria’s reconstruction efforts. China could also agree to provide Syria advanced command, control, communication and surveillance systems and agree to allow Syrian forces create garrisons and store Syrian military hardware on its new bases. Assad’s goal in that hypothetical situation would not be to allow a build-up in Syria by China that would establish it as a counterbalance to Russian military power. Assad’s goal in allowing a enough of a build-up that would lead Putin to better the value and importance of his ties to Syria. A decision by Assad to reach out to China might be viewed as injudicious given the possible consequences. Chinese ambitions in Syria might be difficult for Damascus to tame. The opportunity to build bases so close to Europe would present an I exhaustive list of possibilities for Chinese military planners. Putin may overreact to the decision and strongly suggest that Assad to rescind the invitation to China creating a genuine, visible rift between the two countries. Under circumstance, for Assad it would simply be a existential choice to create some counterbalance to Russia power in his country or at least convince Putin that he was willing to do so in order to better position himself with the Russian leader.

2) Assad may attempt to strike US or other Western troops with chemical weapons. Assad may seek to do this even if a suicide mission is required. While he and his advisers may view the operation as risky. Yet, they may also wrongfully believe that as long as the US-led coalition’s response does not result in a direct attack against him,  they may view it as a calculated risk. If Russia decides not to respond in defense of it ally, Syria, Assad might be able to convince himself that he has proved at least to the Syrian people in Useful Syria that he is strong and that he can do powerful things. The US has about 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria, supporting the ongoing US-led Coalition mission to defeat ISIS militants that remain in the region. The April 13th military strikes have created some concern at the Pentagon that those troops could be vulnerable to retaliation from Syrian forces. Efforts by Assad to put his forces in a position near US-led coalition ground forces must be scrutinized and keep in the coalition’s cross-hairs. If multiple streams of intelligence indicate those forces pose a danger, they should be pushed back or destroyed. There is always the possibility and the danger of miscalculation by Assad. As long as Assad thinks rationally, logically, this scenario could never materialize, as he would be deterred by the thought that an attack on US or another coalition ground forces would be met by an immediate, devastating military response. The targets of the US attacks would hardly be limited to the forces that launched them. Attempts at deconfliction for such attacks might be made, but they would take place regardless of whose forces might be nearby or mixed in with Syrian forces. Depending the response of Russia if its forces were caught in the middle of it all, Assad might manage to drag Moscow into what was likely the worst nightmare it thought of when it deployed its forces to Syria.

If Assad wants to maintain conditions that will allow the march of time to move forward in his favor, he should be reluctant to bother Putin about matters surrounding the April 13th chemical attacks. Doing so would very likely raise even greater concern in Putin. Assad’s circumspection itself may have already awakened Putin’s curiosity. Putin, after all, is super observant. It is a quality that stirs admiration from some and or elicits terror in others. If any one could detect a hint of anger or dissention in the eyes, in mannerisms, in bearing and deportment, in the words of another, it would be Putin. If he manages to discern a new uneasiness in Assad, that might trigger Putin to take steps against him or at least begin peering into the regime with a nearly zoological interest in its main players, searching for a plot against its main ally. Yet again, it may be that Assad is not worried at all about Putin’s reaction. Rather, Assad’s primary concern may be managing Putin’s behavior. Assad may believe that he has been successfully doing that. A mistake in that possible “management effort”, however, would be to attempt to convince Putin that he can count on him. It would be an even bigger mistake for Assad to try to get the pulse of Putin, to find out what he is thinking about him. No one should ever ask Putin if he loves them. The answer in nearly every case would be “No!”

If Assad wants to maintain conditions that will allow the march of time to move forward in his favor, he should be reluctant to bother Putin about matters surrounding the April 13th chemical attacks. Doing so would very likely raise even greater concern in Putin. Assad’s circumspection itself may have already garnered Putin’s curiosity. Putin, after all, is super observant. If he manages to discern a new uneasiness in Assad, intimate trouble, it might cause him to take steps against him.

Is It Time to Wrap Things Up with Assad?: Scenario re Putin

Fata volentem, ducunt, nolentem trahunt. (Destiny carries the willing man, and drags the unwilling.) Moscow entered into all of its deals with Assad, strengthened links to him, with its eyes open. Putin would unlikely have engaged with Assad in a search for areas of common ground on handling chemical weapons. Putin is not conciliatory. He very likely set rules for Assad on the matter. However, leaving the door open for Assad somehow to use the weapons has come back to haunt him. Given what has transpired, Putin surely can reasonably be viewed as being complicit in Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Yet, while Putin may find Assad’s attitude toward those in the West, in the Middle East, and in his own country who oppose him to be understandable, he may also view his approach as reckless.

Syria is broken, and with someone such as Assad at its helm, hardly any outside of the country, capable of supporting its reconstruction, would be willing to do so. In Moscow, there must be some authenticity in its examination of Assad and what it will be able to do with him in the future. Putin most likely sees that there is nothing about Assad that would indicate he can be transformative, creative, or productive. After the April 2017 cruise missile strikes by the Trump administration, a discourse should have been initiated 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. If Putin can truly discern what billows in Assad’s mind, he may have already made the decision to move against him. Finding a leader or group of very senior leaders among elements of power in Syria may not be too difficult. Most in Damascus who are in the best position to know what is happening in Syria understand they live in privileged times. They may not speak of, or whisper, about being called on to be part of a change in leadership. Still, they may be considering where they will stand and how they will act if the situation arose.

To this point, nothing has been stated to indicate that there was anything time sensitive about Putin’s relationship with Assad. Syria’s standing internationally has not been good to say the least. Assad has not used any time or exploited any opportunities to make improvements in his situation. It is unknown whether Assad is ignorant, willfully ignores, or perhaps even suppresses thoughts about reconstruction, something Russia, by jumping into Syria may have committed itself to as a duty. Assad does not appear emotionally devastated by what has befallen his country. This was observed in his very congenial newsmedia appearances the day after the April 13, 2018 military strikes.

Assad is not a shy man, and is unlikely frozen in fear contemplating what Putin might respond the fact that he has rocked the boat so thoroughly. Even if only unconsciously, though, he likely has felt an elevated level of concern over his future since April 7, 2018 chemical attacks. Putting himself in Assad’s shoes, perhaps Putin could imagine that Assad is feeling a bit betrayed by his unwillingness to deter or defeat the Western military strikes in Syria, no matter how unreasonable that would have been. Putin can be sure Assad knows him well enough to realize that expressing his disappointment through impotent snarling will accomplished nothing useful or good. Yet, he also may sense that in the long run that Assad may not be truly able to move on. Putin might consider that when one is angry for a long time, one in a way becomes comfortable with that anger. Soon that anger becomes so familiar that the individual forgets feeling any other way. Assad is a calculator, although he albeit uses an odd calculus. Sed tamen ira procul absit, cum qua nihil recte fiery nec, considerate potest. (But still anger ought be far from us, for nothing is able to be done rightly not judiciously with anger.)

Putting himself in Assad’s shoes, perhaps Putin could imagine that Assad is feeling a bit betrayed by his unwillingness to deter or defeat the Western military strikes in Syria, no matter how unreasonable that would have been. Putin can be sure Assad knows him well enough to realize that expressing his disappointment through impotent snarling would have accomplished nothing useful or good.

Putin may eventually need to make a decision if Assad cannot restrain himself from using chemical weapons again. As mentioned earlier, It is possible that Putin has already has plan for responding to Assad’s future actions. Big issues likely remaining are exactly when and how to set things up. It is also possible that given the gravity of the decision to remove Assad from power, he has not made a final decision. He may prefer to mull things over until he is left with no choice. To decide exactly how to proceed, Putin would unlikely need to refer to any notes or look among huge piles of information collected from Syria to find pieces that answered his questions. He would only need his knowledge, experience, insights, intuition, and instincts. Putin would review what Russia really wants with Syria, what its goals are. He would then need to thoroughly consider how exactly removing Assad will better able Russia to reach those goals. Putin may decide to give Assad the benefit of doubt. He knows the margin between being very clever and being very stupid is very thin. If in some odd way, alien to most reasonable thinkers, the goal of Assad’s behavior only been to strengthen his position with Putin and ensure Russia’s investment and commitment to his well-being and the well-being of the country.

However, if Assad seems to be on the road to doing something spectacular, going astray and lashing out against its long time ally, Putin would invariably choose to act first and decisively. Assad would not have any lobby available to advocate for him in the Kremlin. Money is short in Russia. Decision makers would hardly sign on to allowing Syria to languish without end in a difficult and dangerous situation given the moves of its leadership. While Assad created an image of himself as a strong leader in Damascus, in Moscow, a portrait has most likely been painted that depicts him a being bad for the long-term interests of Russia and Syria. Russia never had the intention of sacrificing its own image to make Assad look good. As mentioned earlier, Assad has no problem with acting in a way that makes Russia look bad. Among likely steps Putin would consider are the following three:

1) After some convincing, have Assad voluntary depart Syria to begin exile somewhere in Russia. The Syrian people would be informed via a video recording that Assad is completely fine and well-aware for, and it was necessary to move him to Russia due to an imminent threat from Western powers to capture him and usher him to the Hague for War Crimes trial. Once, in Russia, it could be said Assad would never be surrendered to anyone and, that he would indeed be returned to Syria once Russia resolves the matter. In the meantime, the Syrian people would have an interim, acting president. In fact, Assad would never return to Syria. If Putin were to ask Assad to leave Damascus, he would have no need to ask twice. Damascus would become a far more dangerous place for him if he does not go.

2) Through a coup de main, Putin could have Assad suddenly captured and relocated to an undisclosed site in Russia. This would be done after making appropriate arrangements furtively with Syrian military officers, security service officials, and other elites in Damascus. Again, he could be brought to an undisclosed location in Russia. After some He would be strongly encouraged to made a video recording for broadcast in Syria indicating that he is safe, doing well, and was brought to Syria’s main ally, Russia, temporarily for his own safety. The specific threat Assad would not need to be disclosed. For security reasons, the source of the information would not revealed. Forcing Assad to leave would be an alternative to having him eliminated.

3) There is the possibility that after appropriate arrangements have been made again with Syrian military officers, security service officials, and other elites, Assad might be assassinated. Russia would be the arbiter of the matter with likely nods from Iran and Turkey,

With Assad removed, Putin would move quickly to install his successor. It would be necessary for Russia to have a central figure, a strongman, one in charge in Syria to assure it has a central conduit through which it could impose its will. Assad’s successor, certainly an Alawite, would be enabled to hold a degree of power similar to that Assad held as long as Russia remains in strength in Syria, and is willing to mitigate pressure placed on the regime from Islamic extremist groups as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and the battered and tattered Syria Opposition forces as well. The change, no matter how necessary or expected, would be traumatizing to many in Damascus and in every capital that has supported him. It would be the end of a sad story concerning the misuse of power, the poor stewardship of a country. Moscow would likely dub the successor’s acting presidency as a caretaker government. Only with the insistence of the US and other P5 Members, would new elections be held.to replace him.  The acting Leader’s presidency would be tainted by the irregular nature of his installment. At the UN Security Council, there would be reminders of Resolution 2254 (2015) concerning free and fair elections in Syria. Moscow would dance around it claiming there that new constitution had not been drafted as also required under the resolution. Moreover, Moscow would explain that conditions were not right for elections as the war was not over. Meanwhile, it would argue Syria was on the right path and seek aid for its reconstruction.

A more tense relationship may eventually ensue if possible future military strikes from a US-led coalition, or even Israel, are met with inaction by Russia. If Assad is able to detect real trouble from his benefactor, he might draw back, and walk back any statements. However, if he fears for his life, anything is possible.

Will He Bite the Hand That Saved Him?: Scenario re Assad

Although Putin has not heard grumblings from Mount Mezzah, he surely recognizes that his relationship with Assad has not been not perfect since the April 13th missile strikes. Putin cannot be sure that Assad accepts that he is concerned with him or Syria or that he has any real compassion for what has befallen his regime. Putin knows that he too would feel somewhat betrayed by any ally who promised to stand by him against an adversary, yet did nothing during an attack. Putin may sense that Assad, after constantly hearing rhetoric from Moscow about curbing the power and defeating its adversary, the US, has not seen any significant efforts in that direction even when opportunities present themselves, such as the April 13th military strikes. Putin cannot deny that he completely and correctly, abandoned his ally in the face of US diplomatic pressure and military power. Under such circumstances, Putin’s promise after the April 13th missile strikes to provide Assad with new, high performance weapons amounted to a bromide. It could not resolve problems facing the Russia-Syria relationship.

It seems unlikely that Assad will remain quiet if there were future Western military strikes in response to his further use of chemical weapons or other dark moves, and as on April 13th, Russia fails to act. Conspiracy theories are an element as ubiquitous as rumors in statements of officials and common conversation among citizens within rogue, authoritarian regimes. It is a corrupted version of thinking out of box preferred mostly because it typically points to behavior of external elements, enemies and false friends, as causality for a regimes disappointments and failures. Assad and his advisers may be discussing whether Russia even considered defending Syria from the military strikes of the US, the United Kingdom, and France. Some might postulate in confidential meetings that Russia may have been hoping the US would destroy Syria’s remaining chemical weapons inventory. Assad and his advisers know that Moscow was in contact with Washington in the days and hours before the military strike. US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff USMC General James Dunford explained that normal deconfliction channels were used to deconflict the airspace that we were using. Dunford further explained that the US did not coordinate targets or any plans with the Russians. Yet, in Moscow, the head of a Russian parliamentary defense committee, Vladimir Shamanov, said Russia was in direct contact with the US Joint Chiefs of Staff about the situation. Hearing this view from Russia would likely satisfy Damascus as it would support surmisals there that Russia assisted the US in identifying targets as the Russians certainly did not use any countermeasures interfere with US efforts to target sites. In an inner monologue, Assad may ponder whether the failure of Russia to act may mean that there was some truth to expressions made by Moscow and Washington in 2017 that there was a new, cooperative era in US-Russia relations. That would contradict what Russia insists in private, and what is strongly hinted public statements, that the US is its adversary. Assad could conclude that in the crafting of the April 13th military strikes, Russia had a figurative vote!

A more tense relationship may eventually ensue if possible future military strikes are met with more inaction by Russia. It is in that environment that Putin would very likely consider moving against Assad. He would most likely act without warning. If Assad is able to detect trouble, he would draw back, and walk back any statements. However, if he fears for his life, he will likely act. Indeed, there could be a final demonstration of his power. He will make a stand or lash out with vigor before he goes. His concealed stockpiles of chemical weapons might even allow him to strike any erstwhile allies with some effect.

Surely, Assad comprehends that Russia commands great power. However, Assad may also feel that there are limits to Putin’s ability to respond to his aggressive moves. Putin would be remiss not to explore whether that is Assad’s thinking. Assad may believe even now that as long as he has chemical weapons and has demonstrated a willingness to use them, he can deter 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.

Surely, Assad comprehends that Russia commands great power. However, Assad may also feel that there are limits to Putin’s ability to respond to his aggressive moves. Assad may believe that as long as he has and has demonstrated a willingness to use chemical weapons, he can deter the allies he has from turning against him. He could also use them in a final self-destructive act. Putin would be remiss not to consider that possibility.

The Way Forward

In Act I, scene iv, of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Generals Macbeth and Banquo have already defeated two separate invading armies, from Ireland and Norway. Following that, they encounter three witches as they cross a moor. The witches prophecy that Macbeth will be made thane of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland, and Banquo, will beget a line of Scottish kings. Once the witches vanish, Macbeth and Banquo speak skeptically of their prophecies. However, some of King Duncan’s men arrive to thank the generals for their victories and tell Macbeth, just as the witches prophesized, that he has been named thane of Cawdor. The previous thane was executed for betraying Scotland by fighting for the Norwegians. Arriving at King Duncan’s castle, Macbeth and Banquo profess their loyalty and gratitude toward him. King Duncan announces Malcolm will be named heir to his throne. Macbeth declares his joy but notes to himself that Malcolm, the Prince of Cumberland, stood between him and the crown the witches also said he would have. Standing aside, Macbeth says to himself: “The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap, For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires: The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be, Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.” Regarding the military strikes from the US, United Kingdom, and France, the most effective way for Assad to deal with the matter and maintain the status quo is accept that what happened, has happened, and no matter how upsetting it might be, it cannot be changed. Retribution is not a reasonable or rational option. Creating difficulties in Syria’s relationship with Russia by advancing the idea will only lead to additional problems  does not need. Negative feedback from the Assad regime’s experience when it fought alone in Syria without Russia assistance may have helped convinced Assad not to make waves. Still, as the situation on the ground has changed somewhat with the US-led coalition’s efforts against ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other Islamic militant groups, he may feel that regime forces are in a better position to do more by themselves. Syrian elites and some average citizens may be welcoming, supportive of the Russian partnership and presence at the moment. However, after observing the effects of few months of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns, they may eventually recognize that Moscow cannot support “Useful 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.

If Assad continues launching chemical attacks, Russia will need to keep justifying his actions and its failure to control him. It may very well be that Putin has developed a negative outlook on Assad, particularly concerning his reliability and trustworthiness. Given Assad’s nature, perhaps Putin has foreseen that the time will come to wrap things up with him. Assad’s wrongs have been too big to successfully cover up using the usual public relations methods. His inadequacies have become stark. Russia is not dealing with a brush fires in Syria, but a serial arsonist in Assad. Syria exists in a condition that the Syrian people would not have too much difficulty moving forward and getting past Assad’s loss. They have been doing that for seven years now. They have faced one tragedy after another. Many Syrians may have been concerned about Assad’s safety after the April 13th military strikes. They only knew he was safe when they saw him on national television the next morning. If the Syrian people were to learn that Assad was gone, those outside of the regime’s good graces in Syria, those displaced, and those who live as refugees worldwide would likely roar and dance in celebration. Those in Useful Syria would be very likely be disappointed, distraught, and likely some in the North Mezzah and Ar Rabwah neighborhoods where he has resided, would be devastated. Still, the old, Assad, would be replaced by the new. With little choice otherwise, all Syrians would move on to the next phase. Omnia autem quae secundum naturam fiunt sunt habenda in bonis. (Whatever befalls in accordance with Nature [God’s will] should be accounted good.)

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.)

Russia, Turkey and Others Agree on Syria Truce Monitoring: Moscow Asks US to Join Its Efforts, But How It Will Respond Is Unclear

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War-torn Damascus (above). Following Russian Federation-led peace talks between representatives of Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Opposition Movement on January 24, 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan, Moscow’s envoy, Alexander Lavrentyev, welcomed the US to take a more active role in efforts to resolve the conflict. The administration of US President Donald Trump will act regarding Syria when it chooses, in an appropriate, measured way. Moscow appears eager to know Trump’s plans for Syria. It seems to be engaging in a bit of guessing on it.

According to a January 24, 2017 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Russia, Turkey and Iran Agree on Syria Truce Monitoring,” officials from the Russian Federation, Turkey, and Iran met in Astana, Kazakhstan for two days with representatives of Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Opposition Movement. On the second day, January 24, 2017, the officials agreed to jointly monitor a fragile ceasefire between the warring parties established on December 30, 2016. The latest deal was called a possible step toward a political solution to end the six-year war. The UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was also present at the January talks. At a news conference in Astana, de Mistura said, “When we came here to Astana, our immediate priority was to ensure the consolidation of the ceasefire.”  He went on to say that in the past that previous cease-fires broke down because of a lack of monitoring and agreement on how to implement them. Under the new agreement, the monitors are to ensure full compliance with the truce and prevent provocations, according to a joint statement issued by three sponsors. The arrangements for monitoring the cease-fire and enforcing it would be decided at later meetings. The Assad regime and Syrian opposition both said they supported the plan. However, significantly different views were expressed by the Assad regime and opposition rebels over what those systems to monitor and enforce should be. The parties planned to reconvene a month later in Geneva for UN-sponsored talks.

Russia, which supports the Assad regime, and Turkey, which supports some rebel groups, explained last week they hoped the talks would begin to map the outlines of a political settlement to end the conflict. As the talks progressed, however, both sides tempered expectations, saying the aim in Astana was to buttress the fragile truce as a foundation for more political talks later. The administration of former US President Barack Obama was a primary supporter of Syrian Opposition Movement and the effort by its armed rebels to shape events on the ground to force Assad regime to talks to discuss the transition to a new government. That effort has largely been unsuccessful. The new administration of US President Donald Trump did not push for a role in what were albeit at the Russian-led talks. Instead, the Trump administration chose not to send a delegation, and the US was represented by the US ambassador to Kazakhstan. Moscow’s envoy to the talks, Alexander Lavrentyev, told reporters that Russia would welcome the US taking a more active role in attempts to resolve the conflict. This was ostensibly an invitation for the Trump administration to fully participate in what Russia hopes will be on-going talks. Russia’s invitation “to take a more active role” on Syria appears to reveal a change of heart in the Kremlin on the US with the advent of the Trump administration. Perhaps it may even serve as evidence that at least on some foreign policy issues, Putin is not locked into a single intent, immutable. By the end of the Obama administration, the US-Russia relationship stood in ruins. So enervated was former US Secretary of State John Kerry, and other officials, with the search for common ground with Russia on Syria that the effort was essentially suspended.

While the invitation from Lavrentyev is laudable and was likely appreciated by the Trump administration, there is far more involved in repairing the broken relationship between the US and Russia than opening the door with an invitation to participate in Russian-led Syria talks. There is also far more to Syria than the talks. US administrations do not formulate their policies and action based on invitations or exchanges of short public statements but through the work of federal employees engaged in the daily task of analyzing situations, the development of policies and policy approaches, and the formal implementation of those policies through diplomacy, and when appropriate, the utilization of other tools of national power. That process has been somewhat disrupted by the resignation of the entire senior level of management officials at the US Department of State during the last week of January 2017. Reportedly, it was part of a spate of retirements by senior Foreign Service officers.  There was boldness going forward with Syria peace talks without the US and working with Turkey and others instead to secure a sustainable peace. However, it seems Russia has found that the dynamics of bringing the warring parties in Syria together for anything is daunting. What Russia may really be doing is inviting the Trump administration to further tie the US to the morass in Syria beyond the anti-ISIS fight. That would be a step of significant consequence, requiring considerable review. There has been some mumbling in the US news media and in social networks about an unverified draft executive order that indicates Trump plans to use the US military, in tandem with the State Department, to establish and protect refugee camps in Syria and neighboring countries. Syria was genuinely broached in a telephone conversation on January 28, 2017 between Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.  According to the Kremlin, the most tangible outcome of the phone call was an understanding that jointly fighting international terrorism was a priority and that the two countries should cooperate in Syria. While admitting that Syria was discussed, the White House characterized the call more casually as “a congratulatory call” initiated by Putin. The Trump administration will act regarding Syria, but it will do so when it chooses, in an appropriate, measured way. A policy with varied approaches to the many aspects of the Syria issue will eventually be articulated. However, most intriguing has been Russia’s interest in connecting with Trump on Syria rather than any other faced by both countries. That is the focus of the discussion here.

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Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). It should have behooved Putin to consider how significant cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups during the administration of US President Barack Obama then might set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries in the next administration, especially regarding the peace talks and postwar reconstruction in Syria. Now cooperation is somewhat uncertain.

Russia in Syria

On September 15, 2015, at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, Putin explained Russia’s military support and intervention in Syria.   He stated, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” Putin explained the exodus of refugees toward Europe and the crisis in Syria was a result of the support foreign powers provided the Syrian Opposition rebels. He said, “I would like to note that people are fleeing Syria because of the military actions that were largely imposed externally by deliveries of weapons and other special equipment. People are fleeing to escape the atrocities committed by terrorists.” Putin went on to state, “[The refugees] are fleeing from radicals, above all. And if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been even greater.” Encouraged by advisers, Putin sensed not only a chance for Russia to shore up one of its remaining allies in the Middle East, but the chance to reassert Russia’s role as a global power. He was able to demonstrate that Russia could succeed where the Obama administration had floundered.

Since September 2015, Russia, along with its allies, have destroyed ISIS units, material, command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has returned a considerable amount of Syrian territory back into the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. True, there are many foreign military forces operating in Syria, but the effort of Russia and its allies is a very visible, full-scale, multidimensional military operation. Russia has managed to shape events on the ground in Syria in order to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. Russia also seeks to defeat ISIS by annihilating its military formations in the field, eliminating its leadership, and eviscerating its so-called Islamic Caliphate to the extent that the organization will never be able to resurrect itself. In the process, the fighting has claimed some of the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ most capable soldiers. Most recently, Russian Federation Army Colonel Ruslan Galitsky was killed in Aleppo, Syria. Putin personally announced that Galitsky had suffered fatal wounds when a Russian military field hospital in Aleppo’s al-Furqan neighborhood was struck by artillery fire on December 2, 2016. According to the Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, Galitsky was acting as a military adviser to the Syrian Arab Army during its rapid three-week advance through about 75 percent of East Aleppo. It was reported that Galitsky was due to be promoted to the rank of major-general on December 12, 2016.

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Since September 2015, Russia, along with its allies, have destroyed ISIS units, materiél, command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has returned a considerable amount territory back into the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. In the process, the fighting has claimed some of the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ most capable soldiers. Counted among those lost is Russian Federation Army Colonel Ruslan Galitsky (above).

A Russian Invitation for Cooperation on Syria: A Lot to Consider

Praeterita mutare non possumus, sed futura providere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we anticipate the future.) Certainly, Moscow would be very pleased if its interactions with the Trump administration could begin at a point where it had any positive, constructive interactions the administration of former US President Barack Obama. That would require ignoring the overall tenor of the relationship it has had with Washington on Syria and many other urgent and important issues. The Obama administration was unsupportive of Russia’s intervention from the get-go. On September 30, 2015, then US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter forecasted about Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, “The Russian approach here is doomed to fail.” Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” Almost immediately after Russia began military operations in Syria in September 2015, Obama administration officials were already regularly reproaching Russia over its repeated airstrikes upon “moderate” anti-Assad groups while ostensibly seeking to attack ISIS. Obama’s disappointment could be discerned in his statements. Concerning Syria, on August 6, 2016, Obama went as far as to say about Putin and Russia: “I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin.” He continued: “Whenever you are trying to broker any kind of deal with an individual like that or a country like that, you have got to go in there with some skepticism.”

In diplomacy, words and behavior matter absolutely, and there must be a certain amiability and gentleness in communications and interactions in order to create the environment for the development of mutual respect and understanding. It seems very uncharacteristic of Moscow in the midst of what Russian officials touted as a foreign policy success to invite the Trump administration to become more engaged with it on Syria. Still, even knowing it would mean sharing the limelight with the US, Russia appeared to have the desire to include the US in the process. To make perfunctory or platitudinous gesture for the US to become more engaged in Syria without any real desire for such cooperation could have potentially created a negative situation. The Russia could have convince the US to work with it, only to discover that the approaches of the two countries were not compatible. Far worse than both of those possibility would be the discovery that the invitation was a hoax. Certainly, Moscow had to expect that although Lavrentyev spoke with such comfortable words, it could not be acted upon immediately. Trump administration undoubtedly has it own thoughts and plans for Syria, but at the same time, it would very likely want to discern the full meaning of Russia’s “suggestion.” The decision was based on some rationale.

There is the possibility that Moscow’s invitation for the US join the Syria talks was a trial balloon floated off with the hope that if the Trump Administration might be interested in investing itself in Syria as part of its policy planning on the Middle East, counter terrorism, and possibly its Russia policy. Moscow seems very open to engagement. On counterterrorism, specifically, perhaps it would like to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria. Russia has been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces–Spetsnaz–and airpower.

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A Russian Federation Tupolev Tu-22M3 bomber (above). Moscow appears very open to engagement with the Trump administration on counter terrorism. It seems Moscow would like to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria. The Russian Federation Armed Forces have already been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces and airpower.

Leap of Faith?: No Firm Basis for Moscow’s Hopes on Trump and Syria

On one occasion, Putin has mentioned the 1973 comedy, science-fiction film from the Soviet Union, “Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession.” Putin would quote one of the film’s characters as saying to another: “How am I supposed to understand what you’re saying if you don’t say anything?” This really is the case with Moscow and Trump administration. To an extent, the January 28, 2017 telephone conversation between Trump and Putin confirmed essence of Lavrentyev’s statement in Astana. Yet, there were no details discussed that would indicate cooperation on Russia’s terms.  More specifically, the statement generated by the White House after the conversation noted that “The positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair.”  It stated further simply, “Both President Trump and President Putin are hopeful after today’s call the two sides can move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern.”

There has been no formal articulation of a Syria policy and immediate approaches for its implementation by the Trump White House or State Department. That makes it difficult to see what could have impelled Russia to suggest greater US involvement in Syria. Lacking any formal statements from the Trump administration on Syria to analyze, it could very well be that some in the Kremlin have turned to US news media interpretations of political events and decisions of the Trump Administration. For example, on January 26, 2017, the Guardian reported: “Trump had earlier also appeared to fall into line with Russia’s approach towards Syria, which had been to bomb the anti-Assad opposition into submission, before turning its attention towards a mutual foe, ISIS.” As for taking an unconventional, high profile approach to diplomacy, it may have been an effort to match the idea popularly promoted in the US media that it is the Trump administration’s preferred foreign policy tack. When one is less certain about the objective truth, the possibility that one might be drawn elsewhere for answers increases.

In addition to the fact that no formal policy documents exist that could have caused Moscow to believe the Trump administration’s policy on Syria, once articulated, would be compatible with its own. No publicized contact has taken place between Trump administration and the Kremlin, particularly one that would even approximate a complex conversation on bilateral relations. As mentioned, there was the late-January 28, 2017 Trump-Putin telephone call. However, no other conversations during the campaign or in the period before Trump’s inauguration could have reasonably caused Moscow to be certain of what his administration’s policy approaches would be on Syria. Additionally, decisions that might be made by the Trump administration on Syria at this point would be made with every fact, every judgment, the US government has available. Eventually, a formal policy on Syria will be presented.  Verba volant, scripta manent. (Spoken words fly away, written words remain.)

Diplomacy via Public Statements: Russia’s Effort to Bypass the US Policymaking Process

It is unclear how Moscow thought Lavrentyev’s invitation would be processed within the US foreign policy apparatus. Most recently, there have been significant changes in the US Department of State. According to the Washington Post, on January 25, 2017, Patrick Kennedy, Undersecretary for Management, Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, and the Director of the Office of Foreign Missions, Ambassador Gentry Smith resigned from their posts. In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr retired January 20, 2017, and the director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, Lydia Muniz, departed the same day. While the Trump might have eventually replaced these officials, career Foreign Service officers as them are crucial to the State Department’s many functions, particularly the implementation of an administration’s agenda.

Officials in the Kremlin or the Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs should not hope to impact US foreign policy by just making statements and expecting a reaction. Foreign policy is still formulated at the White House and US Department of State as a result of a thorough examination of facts by policy analysts.In the current environment, the analytical process on Russia must be akin to a crucible in which social media rumors, falsehoods, and fake news must be burned off. Those facts are analyzed, with the concepts and intent of senior department officials and those of national leaders firmly in mind. Then others, enlightened with truths, based on real facts presented by the analysts, formulate policy options. US Department of State uses diplomacy to implement policies. Employees in other departments whose work concerns US external relations engage in a similar processes utilizing their particular tools of national power.  For example, in the US Department of Defense, employees formulate policies entailing the possible use of the military power. It is a daily enterprise in which thousands of federal employees are engaged. In verbis etiam tenuis cautusque serendis dixeris egregie, notum si callida verbum reddiderit iunctura novum. (When putting words together it is good to do it with nicety and caution, your elegance and talent will be evident if by putting ordinary words together you create a new voice.)

U.S. President Donald Trump walks through the Colonnade to the Oval Office after returning to the White House in Washington.

When Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address, he was not presenting a policy plan for any region. Rather, he presented “America First” as a concept, a guiding principle, indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. An explanation of the concept was posted on the White House website on January 20, 2017 as the “America First Foreign Policy.”

A US-Russia Relationship on Syria:Thinking It Through in Moscow

Faced with the predicament of having no formal articulation of a Syria policy and immediate approaches for its implementation by the Trump White House or State Department from which it could work, Moscow’s decision to authorize Lavrentyev’s  invitation may have been based on assessments developed from the abstract by Russian foreign policy analysts of the Trump administration’s most likely Syria policy or greater Middle East policy. If anything, from what Trump has stated, analysts admittedly might have gleaned and constructed his likely key foreign and national security policy concepts on which his decisions might be based. True, when Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address, he was not presenting a policy plan for any region. Rather, he presented, “America First” as a concept, a guiding principle indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. An explanation of the concept was posted on the White House website on January 20, 2017 as the “America First Foreign Policy.” It reads in part: “Peace through strength will be at the center of that foreign policy. This principle will make possible a stable, more peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground.” It further states: “Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority. To defeat and destroy these groups, we will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary. In addition, the Trump Administration will work with international partners to cut off funding for terrorist groups, to expand intelligence sharing, and to engage in cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable propaganda and recruiting.”

It could very well be that policy analysts in Moscow, as much as policy analysts in other national capitals, may have used their analysis of the “America First Foreign Policy” to base conclusions on prospective Trump administration policies. Judgments made would need to have been deemed satisfactory enough to take action on. Given the statement’s mention of counterterrorism and the determination to pursue the issue vigorously, it would naturally follow that the judgments on which Russian analysts would have been most confident would concern counterterrorism and how it might relate to Syria. Absent this possibility, what impelled Russia to suggest greater US involvement in Syria truly becomes a mystery.

Ut desint vires tamen est laudanda voluntas. (Even if it is beyond one’s power, the will [to try] is still worthy of praise.) Surely, Moscow would prefer that Western foreign policy analysts saved their ministrations for officials  of their own countries. Nevertheless, how Moscow may have perceived relations with the Trump administration on Syria before authorizing Lavrentyev’s invitation, what it perceived the US footprint in Syria would be following a renewed investment there, and how the US role might impact Russia, as well as its current partners on Syria is worth considering. If Russia’s decision on cooperating with the US on Syria was based on conclusions reached by Russian analyst as postulated here, it would be interesting to consider gaps that likely existed in their understanding of Trump’s concepts and prospective decisions on US foreign policy. The list of issues which Russian analysts would need to consider and for which they would need the right answers would be lengthy. Some of the important considerations for Moscow would likely have been: 1) bridging the diplomacy gap on Syria; 2) connecting on counterterrorism and safe zone; 3) establishing an understanding on Assad; 4) handling the Syrian rebels; 5) managing the peace talks; 6) getting the US to accept Iran’s role in Syria; 7) discerning US-Turkey cooperation; and, 8) postwar peace-enforcement and reconstruction.

1) Bridging the diplomacy gap on Syria

One could postulate that Russia’s interest in including the US in its Syria peace talks now is a display of newly found respect for the US Presidency, a very congenial welcome to the new administration with hope it would be perceived a sign of Moscow’s desire for improved relations, or an attempted appeal to the pride and ego of new US officials. While on the outside, Trump may appear to some as audacious, unpredictable, aggressive, on the inside Trump is thoughtful, disciplined, under control, and tough. The Kremlin might keep in mind is that much as Putin, Trump will hardly interested in diffusing tension by amiability, a hug or a slap on the back, an affected joviality to initiate dialogue. Trying to diffuse tension with Trump in this way is to play the minstrel. It will signal insecurity.

Russia has not provided a useful articulation of its hopes for relations with the Trump administration which would be helpful to the White House on some policy planning. It would also be helpful if Moscow articulated a reasonable cause for Russia’s decision to break contact with the Obama administration on Syria, or exclude the US in its talks in Astana. Anger is not an acceptable rationale but very often the basis for poor decisions. Moscow should realize that the Trump administration indeed represents a new beginning. It will seek better ties with other countries and better deals on anything negotiated by the Obama administration. Still, that does not necessarily mean everything that was Obama’s must be deracinated. Trump is very patriotic, and while he may not have agreed with Obama’s policies and approaches, he would certainly want other governments to display respect for a sitting US president. The reality is Russian behavior toward Obama Presidency at some level may factor into his perceptions of Russia.

It is unclear whether there are any other steps other than Lavrentyev’s invitation, planned to help bridge diplomatic gap between the US and Russia on Syria. Having taken the uncongenial and provocative step of excluding the US from its peace talks in Astana, and terminating discussions on Syria with the US, Russia’s attempt to revive what has been broken is being attempted with almost no diplomatic foundation to build upon. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry very likely explained to his counterpart Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Putin, himself, that reaching an agreement during the Obama administration on Syria and coordinating effectively under that agreement and others that might have been reached, would increase the possibility that US-Russian coordination at that level would be preserved by the next US administration. It would have been a simple statement of truth as much as an effort at fence mending. It should have behooved Putin to consider how significant cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups then might set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries in the next administration, especially on a postwar reconstruction and peace-enforcement mission in Syria.

A feasible point on which Russia might build new diplomatic relations on Syria would be US-Russian military coordination cooperation on Syria to ensure that the two countries’ air forces operate safely and that the risk of accidental confrontation or collision is minimized. Those talks were set up as a result of a proposal proffered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to share intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. Russia might want to provide a positive assessment of the status of US-Russia air coordination on Syria.

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A US B-52H bomber (above) Even without a formal articulation of its foreign and national security policies, the Trump administration’s intentions regarding counterterrorism have been explicit. Trump is ready to respond to terrorists groups with varied means to include stealthy, covert special operations raid executed with surgical precision to airstrikes of unimaginable destructive power.

2) Connecting on counterrorism and safe zones

Given that diplomatic efforts between the US and Russia on Syria near the Obama administration’s terminus were discontinuous, it is difficult to see how Moscow would have any confidence that the Trump administration would be interested in diplomatic efforts on Syria that would bridge the gap. Prospective diplomatic efforts might include talks on the US role in the Russian-led Syria peace talks, a new US-Russia partnership in Middle East, or counterterrorism.  The draft executive order circulating on social media in January 2017 was first obtained and published by the Huffington Post, Trump envisioned establishing “safe zones” both inside Syria and in neighboring countries that will be used to “protect vulnerable Syrian populations” while they “await firm settlement” either elsewhere in Syria or in other countries. The document alludes to Trump’s controversial calls to prevent people fleeing the war-torn country from entering the US.  It further explained that  according to a draft executive order along with other steps with the goal of preventing future terrorist attacks in the US. Trump indicates he wants to see a plan by late April. The draft executive order was unverified.  Some believe Trump will likely withdraw the matter due to tough logistical and political challenges associated with it.

Even without a formal articulation of its foreign and national security policies, the Trump administration’s intentions with regard to counterterrorism may have been explicit enough. He appears ready to respond to terrorists groups with varied means to include stealthy, covert special operations raid executed with surgical precision to airstrikes of unimaginable destructive power.  As the capital of ISIS’ now dwindling Islamic Caliphate is located in Syria, it could be postulated that the country should hold some relevance regarding the administration’s foreign policy.  It could seen as  prospective rationale for Trump administration to invest time and effort on the political situation in Syria. Still, it would be difficult to discern solely from that angle what the administration’s interest and approaches to other aspects of the Syria issue might be.

It is uncertain whether Russia could establish a purely anti-ISIS linkage with the US on Syria or whether such a tie would be desirable. While the Trump-Putin telephone call albeit occurred after Lavrentyev made his statement,Moscow’s desire to make counterterrorism the foundation for establishing US-Russian relationship focus was reflected by the conversation. The aspect of the call that the Kremlin primarily focused on was counterterrorism. The Kremlin noted, “The presidents spoke in favor of setting up genuine coordination between Russian and American actions with the aim of destroying Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria.”

3) Handling the Syrian Opposition Rebels

It is uncertain how the Trump administration will respond to Syrian Opposition Movement rebels on the ground. The Obama administration in 2012 to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement with its support in the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. However, the US effort in Syria was designed and recognized by many as work on the margins. For nearly five years, the rebels were, for the most part, a disappointment as a military force. Indeed, after the Obama administration took on what proved to be the thankless task of supporting the Syrian Opposition rebels on the ground, complaints were frequently heard from senior commanders of the Supreme Military Council, the opposition’s military wing and commanders of their forces in the field, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well. Their grievances belie the fact that the Syrian opposition military leaders, after four years of war, have failed to unify the many groups in the Free Syrian Army into a cohesive fighting force and have been unable, without foreign assistance, to enhance their fighters capabilities. Only with US direction were FSA units and People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party in the northeast Syria able to unite as the Syrian Democratic Forces. The rebels’ leaders had been remiss in devising their own plans for the effective use of their forces against ISIS and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. From the beginning of their movement, Syrian opposition leaders should have been mature enough, and worldly wise enough, to understand that neither US nor any other country owed them anything. The Syrian Opposition’s Supreme Military Council, and senior FSA commanders should have expected more from themselves before demanding so much of others. The chance that Syrian Opposition Movement rebels on the ground in Syria and its political leaders would gain and retain the support of the Trump administration will be slim if their predilection toward being demanding and difficult to coordinate politically persists.

There are presently 500 US Special Operations troops in Syria training, equipping, and assisting Syrian Opposition rebels. Their help has allowed the rebels achieve some big things. The rebels march toward Raqqa is an example of that. Through the assistance of US Special Operations advisers, the rebels have been able to coordinate their movements with planners of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition air campaign. However, there is still no evidence that the rebels possess any capability to shape the overall struggle in a way now that would put real pressure on Assad. For many rebels scattered around Syria, everyday is fight for survival as they hope for a miracle.

ISIS and other Islamic militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda, such as the former Jabhat al-Nusra and its reported offshoot Khorasan, have managed find advantage in the Syrian opposition’s failings throughout the war.  By attacking mainstream FSA units that were trying to defeat Assad’s troops and allies, the Islamic militants have succeeded in making the Syrian opposition’s situation far worse. On top of the damage caused by their attacks on the FSA, Islamic militant groups continue to commit countless atrocities against the Syrian people. The Islamic militant groups were never oriented toward Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government. ISIS has included territory they hold in Syria as part of a massive Islamic State, an Islamic Caliphate, crossing into Iraq that is solely under their control, ruled under Sharia law. A syncretistic merger of mainstream opposition and Islamic militant ideas on governance was never going to occur. Meanwhile, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups became stronger almost daily. Their strength has long since passed the point at which mainstream Syrian Opposition forces could independently contend with them.

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US Special Operations troops in Syria (above). With the help of 500 US Special Operations troops who were sent into Syria to train, equip, and assist them, the Syrian Opposition rebels have managed to achieve some things. Their march toward Raqqa is an example of that. However, there is still no evidence of a capability to shape the conflict in a way now that would put real pressure on Assad. For many Syrian Opposition rebels, everyday is fight for survival as they hope for a miracle.

An authentic Russian assessment of the Syrian opposition rebels at this point could only be that they will not be able to shape the military situation on ground in a way to force Assad to talks for arranging his removal from office and setting up a transitional government. The rebels have lost many fighters, and a significant portion of their territorial gain. They clearly have not influenced Assad’s thinking or decision-making. From a Russian military perspective, there is not too much for the Trump administration to go into Syria to support. Russia has been effective at halting rebels efforts on the ground. In reality, the US has been the only obstacle to ensuring the rebels’ destruction by Russian Federation and Syrian Arab air power. Some analysts believe the Battle of Aleppo truly signaled the end for rebels. Russia apparently plans to remain in Syria at relatively high levels and continue to provide military assistance to Assad’s forces. Without any US assistance, there is no chance whatsoever that the rebels could keep fighting at all. Given that, the Moscow may find it difficult to believe that Trump administration would pump more time, blood, and money into the rebel effort.

4) Managing the Peace Talks

As there is no path for the Syrian Opposition Movement to secure a role in the Damascus government, Moscow may doubt that the Trump administration would be willing to negotiate for them at the Syrian peace talks. Pressing for the demand of the Obama administration that a transition government be created in Damascus and that Assad commit to stepping down would be unreasonable. Likewise, it might be considered unnecessary for the Trump administration to seek a settlement on territory. The Syrian Opposition Movement was a political movement not territorial one, in which an autonomous state is sought. The movement of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party, however, is a struggle for autonomy. To that extent, it may be an issue which the Trump administration could get behind.

On the other hand, despite glowing reports on what had been achieved in Astana, Moscow discovered in December 2016 and January 2017 that managing peace talks with the warring parties was not easy. There was difficulty getting the Syrian Opposition to agree to anyrhing. This was repeatedly the case when the Obama administration was involved. Moreover, during previous talks, foreign diplomats were required to devote a significant amount of time acting as mediators to hold the Syrian Opposition’s diverse groups together. While the opposition delegation was formed mostly of rebel commanders rather than political leaders, it was still quick to reject proposal for direct talks with the Assad regime because of its continued bombardment of opposition-held areas. Russia drummed up political support for the talks in Astana, which appeared aimed at leveraging its rejuvenated ties with Turkey and to simply give Moscow a greater voice in efforts to broker a settlement. However, Russian officials have lowered expectations that a major breakthrough would result from its efforts. Making things worse, during the talks, fierce infighting between rebel groups erupted in Syria, pitting at least one faction that supported the talks against another that was excluded. The rebels went into the talks at their weakest point so far in the war and this new eruption of violence threatened to fracture the opposition even further. Moscow may very well sense that it needs the assistance of the US to manage the talks.

5) Establishing an Understanding on Assad

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. However, if Moscow wants to cooperate with the administration on Syria, it must create an environment that will facilitate such cooperation. There is the likelihood that Trump administration will not accept Assad. For the moment, the transition of Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. If the Trump administration by chance decided to cooperate with Russia on Syria at the moment, it would signal its acceptance of Assad’s presidency as it is Russia’s policy to fully support it. To believe that might happen is to deny reality. Russia must decide how it will negotiate on Assad before it discusses anything about Syria with the Trump administration.

If the Trump administration has no interest in working with Assad, it could hardly be expected that the administration would provide US financial assistance for Syria’s reconstruction, helping to rebuild his regime. Russia needs to assess whether there any strong motivation might exist for the Trump administration to be involved. At best, the administration would only give reconstruction consideration if it was presented with some opportunity, a role of clear benefit to the US. Alternatively, Moscow could make itself completely open to responding to the Trump administration’s wishes on Syria. Absent either, there would hardly be any point to pursuing the matter. Russian analysts should have assessed that Assad’s future would need to be an important factor in the Kremlin’s calculus on reconstruction.

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Despite glowing reports on what had been achieved in Astana, Moscow actually found that managing the peace talks was not easy. It faced particular difficulty keeping the Syrian Opposition together. It has repeatedly been the case during Syrian peace talks that foreign diplomats were required to devote much time acting as mediators to hold the Syrian Opposition’s diverse groups together. Moscow may very well sense that it needs the assistance of the US to manage the talks. 

6) Getting the US to Accept Iran’s Role in Syria

Russian analysts should have assessed that the Trump administration may not want to work in conjunction with Iran on Syria. The Trump administration has explicitly indicated that it is an avid supporter of Israel, whose leaders have referred to Iran as an existential threat. Further, during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Trump expressed the desire to alter or scrap the Iran nuclear deal. His administration’s thinking and approach to the nuclear deal may impact its desire to participate in the Syria peace talks while Iran was present. Russia would also need to establish what Iran’s reaction would be to possible US involvement in the talks. Reportedly, Iran has made huge sacrifices in blood and money in Syria, and is still doing so. Its leaders will most likely feel that their country deserves standing greater, but certainly no less than the US on any issues concerning Syria. It is unclear whether the Russians would want to do anything to negatively affect the strong ties it has developed with Iran in order to establish cooperation with the US.

There are other matters that might greatly concern the Trump administration. At a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora” participate in the vote. He was betting that if Syrians around the world can participate in the vote, Assad will not be able to win, his regime likely has a limited degree of influence within Syria and the Syrian diaspora worldwide, including among refugees in massive camps in Jordan and Turkey or on their own elsewhere. As December 30, 2015 greatcharlie post explained, Russia and Iran would hardly allow the situation to slip from their hands so easily. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), IRGC-Quds Force, the Iranian Army, and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security would do much to influence the outcome on the battlefield but also will likely do much to help the Assad regime influence the result of elections despite UN monitors, by helping to “create support” for Assad and “coping” with regime opponents. Reportedly, the Assad regime and the Iranians have engaged in a bit of ethnic cleansing. For example, Sunnis in West Damascus were forced to resettle in Kefraya and Fua. Iraqi and Lebanese Shias among those who replace them. Shia residents in Kefraya and Fua have been moved to formerly Sunni areas near Damascus. The Trump administration will likely point to this matter and will unlikely approve of Iran’s actions.  Moscow will need to develop responses to Trump administration questions about that.

7) Discerning US-Turkey Cooperation

Russia analysts would likely assess for Moscow that if the US enters the fray on Syria, Turkey would be forced to establish a balance between the relations with Russia and the US. While Turkey has a new linkage with Russia on Syria, it has a strong linkage with the US, its long-time NATO ally, on Syria as a result of an agreement with the Obama administration to take on the role of supporting US-backed Syrian Opposition rebels. Moreover, how Turkey intended to proceed regarding its support of those US-backed rebels’ campaign is unknown. This issue will take on even greater importance if the Trump administration decided to reduce or halt financial support to Ankara that may have assisted Turkish military forces and intelligence services working with Syrian Opposition rebels.

Safe zones have been a core demand of the Syrian opposition and were central to Turkey’s Syria policy for much of the past five years. However, Ankara is apparently lukewarm about idea of new safe zones, believing that under its auspices, a sufficient safe zone has already created. Indeed, Turkey has set up its own zone of influence, a de facto safe zone, between the Kurdish enclaves of Jarablus and Irfin, which is aimed primarily at keeping Syrian Kurds from forming a presence along the entire length of its border with Syria, but is also being used as a refuge by some fleeing civilians. Russian analysts may have already assessed that if the US receives significant push back from Turkey on creating new safe zones in Syria, it may temper the Trump administration’s interest in investing the US further in the Syria situation. Countries as Turkey and Jordan would be critical to any plan to create safe zones in country because they would need a steady line of support in order to be sustained.

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Aleppo (above). US cooperation on reconstruction would be most desirable after any conflict.There would hardly be any motivation for the Trump administration to provide US financial assistance for reconstruction of Syria for Assad. At best, Trump would only give reconstruction consideration if there was a clear benefit to the US. Unless Russia would be open to responding to US wishes on Syria, it is hard see what would draw the US to the enterprise.

8) Postwar Peace-Enforcement and Reconstruction

Russian analysts may have assessed that convincing US to cooperate on the Syria peace talks could create a possible path for for US participation at an important level in the country’s postwar peace-enforcement mission and possibly reconstruction.  It is a monumental task that lies ahead. Leaving Syria without at least initiating some complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement would be a mistake. That would create ideal conditions for the rejuvenation of ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or the establishment of another Islamic militant group to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That was what occurred in Iraq after US forces departed, the problem in Libya with the removal of the regime of Muammar El-Ghaddafi, and it is a growing problem in Afghanistan.

US cooperation on reconstruction would be most desirable after any conflict. Surely, Russian Federation EMERCOM, developed and led by the current Russian Federation Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu for many years, would have an significant impact on that effort. However, without the financial wherewithal and expertise of the US, Russia’s investment in Syria might amount to nothing in the end. In the international reconstruction effort launched in Bosnia in 1995 under the Dayton Peace Agreement and the creation of the multinational peace-enforcement force in support of the agreement’s implementation, I-FOR (Implementation Force). The US and Russia cooperated as members of that force and the follow-on force, S-FOR (Stabilization Force). US participation in the peace-enforcement and reconstruction effort may also do much to encourage participation from those Arab countries and Western countries as well. Russia, itself, has sought stronger ties with Arab countries, bolstering economic ties with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait and diplomatic overtures with Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Russia’s hope was that courting those countries would make them more receptive to its’ calls to assist in finding a political solution for Syria. It was also hoped those countries would eventually be responsive to a campaign by Russia to gain financial support for Syria’s reconstruction. Still, there is sense of stability that may come from US participation in the Syria effort. Knowing the US and Russia were cooperating on the ground might create a sense of security among the other countries.

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The Trump administration, in its nascent days, has set out to accomplish many things, but approaches matters in a way a bit different from previous administrations. Its intent is not to reject or break the US policymaking process, but the change still worries many. Government professionals will soon be put to work implementing numerous administration policies. Once cabinet members and senior executives of the various departments are seated, policy statements on Syria and other issues will be produced.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Polonius is a Danish Lord and chief counselor to the king. In Act I Scene iii, his son Laertes is leaving home for France. While sending his son off, Polonius offers him advice on how to behave with integrity and practicality overseas. At the end of a long list of guidelines, Polonius tells Laertes: “This above all: to thine ownself be true. And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Taking an unconventional approach can be called creative, but when it leads to successful outcomes, it must be considered effective. The Trump administration, in its nascent days, has set out to accomplish many things and it is doing them in a way different from that of previous administrations. Change can be disturbing. On foreign policy, it is not the intent of the Trump administration to reject or break the policymaking process. Inevitably, professionals serving in government departments will be put to work implementing numerous administration policies. Trump is aware of the very large foreign affairs and national security apparatus made available to a US president, and knows it is very capable. As its cabinet members and senior executives of the various departments are seated, the Trump administration will begin to produce policy statements not only on Syria, but many other issues as well. Moscow’s invitation for the Trump administration to join the Syria effort seems to indicate that Russia would prefer, and if possible encourage, the White House to circumvent the normal policymaking process. Taking approach will put Moscow on nothing but a bad road. Indeed, accomplishing anything that way will be impossible. Despite what may become a persistent voice from overseas, the administration will formulate its policies and advance them at its own pace.