Trump Signs Russian Sanctions into Law: Tillerson Stands Side-by-Side with Him on the New Law and US Policy

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (above). When US President Donald Trump signed legislation on August 2, 2017 imposing sanctions on Russia, he asserted that the law included “clearly unconstitutional provisions.” Tillerson stated in complete solidarity with Trump that the law should not have been passed and will harm US foreign policy efforts. Tillerson’s fidelity to Trump is unquestionable. Yet, what will determine Tillerson’s success as Secretary of State is not only his loyalty but the many dimensions of his capabilities.

According to an August 2, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “Trump Signs Russian Sanctions into Law, With Caveats”, US President Donald Trump signed legislation on August 2, 2017 imposing sanctions on Russia and limiting his own authority to lift them, but asserted that the measure included “clearly unconstitutional provisions,” leaving open the possibility that he might not enforce them as lawmakers intended. The legislation reflected deep skepticism among Members of the US Congress from both parties about Trump’s congenial approach to Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin and ensure  Russia would not avoid consequences for its annexation of Crimea, military intervention in Eastern Ukraine, and intrusion into the 2016 US Presidential Election. Before Trump signed the measure, Russia retaliated for the seizure of two Russian diplomatic properties and expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats by the administration of US President Barack Obama by seizing two US diplomatic properties in Russia and reducing the US Embassy staff by 755 members. That action was deliberately taken before the bill was signed to ensure it would be seen as a response to Congress, not to Trump. After Trump signed the measure, the Kremlin’s reaction was mild. Kremlin Press Secretary, Dmitri Peskov, stated: “De facto, this changes nothing.” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on August 1, 2017 stated in complete harmony with Trump saying that lawmakers should not have passed the sanctions legislation. He stated: “The action by the Congress to put these sanctions in place and the way they did, neither the president nor I are very happy about that.” He continued: “We were clear that we didn’t think it was going to be helpful to our efforts . . . .” Yet, Tillerson could accept the reality of the situation. He went on to state: “but that’s the decision they made. They made it in a very overwhelming way. I think the president accepts that.”

Those wishing the current administration success for the sake of the US and the sake of the world felt Trump hit the jackpot on December 12, 2016 when he announced Tillerson would serve as his Secretary of State. The 64 year old native of Texas had just rounded off a 41 year career at ExxonMobil as Chief Executive Officer. Critics rushed in to say Tillerson lacked diplomatic experience despite the global nature of his duties for ExxonMobil which among other tasks included: negotiating contracts; settling major disagreements with overseas clients and partners; overseeing operations; and managing emergencies. At this point, Tillerson has found his stride as Secretary of State. Initially, he tried to shield the foreign policy making process and get his efforts off to a great start by safeguarding his organization, and eliminating his mind from the disparagement, opprobrium, and destructive accusations being hurled at the administration.He would not say or do anything to involve himself in that fracas However, strenuous efforts were made by critics of the administration to tug Tillerson down into the web of intrigue. Remaining distant from all of that cacaphonous background noise proved to be impossible. Tillerson has accepted that reality, and has managed to cope with any unfounded and unwarranted ridicule. Moreover, he has had some success in allaying concerns of foreign leaders and counterparts with whom he has met by presenting them with a genuine, logical picture of Trump’s concepts and intent, and the administration’s foreign policy.

Indeed, Tillerson, through the strength of his character and the confidence he creates, has provided incentive for foreign leaders and his counterparts to recurvate away from any hastily and mistakenly devised adversarial approaches they may have considered taking with the US. What may determine the size of Tillerson’s footprint in the administration are certain traits he has shown as Secretary of State. Owing in part to his constancy and tremendous value to Trump, Tillerson will continue to receive his encouragement to make full use of the many dimensions of his capabilities along the lines of excellence in his post. For Tillerson, one important measure of success will be improving the way in which the US Department of State will perform its job in the future. With Trump’s backing, his plans to transform his organization will be realized. Vigilando, agendo, bene consulendo, prospera omnia cedunt. (By watching, by doing, by consulting well, these things yield all things prosperous.)

Tillerson (right) and Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi (left). Tillerson was initially declared a neophyte by critics. They proffered that he lacked sufficient experience in diplomacy to serve as Secretary of State. Tillerson has actually performed superbly as the chief US diplomat. In meetings with foreign leaders and counterparts, he digs beyond the surface to discern where stronger linkages can be established. Those insights have helped him develop resolutions to issues.

Becoming a Great Secretary of State

Every US Secretary of State in contemporary times has added his or her own touch to the job, creating something unique about their tenure. Nonetheless, there are a few things that cause certain chief diplomats to stand out from others according to Aaron David Miller in his renowned December 4, 2012 Bloomberg commentary, “Four Traits Make a Great Secretary of State.”

First among Miller’s four requisite traits, boiled down to the bones here, is having a negotiator’s mindset. Indeed, an effective Secretary of State can conduct negotiations, defuse crises and tackle issues that a reasonable person might consider intractable. The Secretary of State must know how to make a deal, to have a sense for timing and to know when an opportunity has revealed itself, and then know how to reach a final agreement.

Second, to the extent that it supports deal making, it is important for the Secretary of State to have a cogent, coherent worldview, ostensibly infused with the policies of the US administration.

Third, the Secretary of State must be assured of the president’s full support. Ostensibly, all presidents have supported their Secretaries of State, but that support can vary in degree. A Secretary of State must have support critical to success.  The renowned statesman, former US Secretary of State James Baker, once remarked that the Secretary must be “the president’s man at the State Department,” with real authority, power, and credibility.

Fourth, the president must indicate publicly and internationally, through words and deeds, that the Secretary of State is a trusted confidante. If an apparent gap exists in the relationship between Secretary of State and the president, or if it is clear that the Secretary of State has not been given the power to handle urgent and important issues, the power as the president’s chief diplomatic will be diminished.

Tillerson Has the Negotiatior’s Mindset; He Has Developed a Coherent Worldview

Virum mihi, Camena, insece versutum. (Tell me, O’ Muse, of the skillful man.) Tillerson approaches negotiations with foreign counterparts with a businesslike  pragmatism. He is very disciplined. He speaks frankly with a no-nonsense demeanor that might discomfit some. At the April 12, 2017 meeting with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov,  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 . . . .” In the actual talks, ideas jump from Tillerson’s head, Pallas-like, to shift their course in his favor. He conquers all obstacles seemingly by the shear force of his cerebration. Posside sapientiam, quia auro mellor est. (Possessing wisdom is better than owning gold.)

Searching the archives of US newsmedia houses for reports on the foreign policy of the Trump administration, one would already find a multitude of inequitable, negative assessments, against Tillerson. Those reports would typically explain that he is inexperienced in diplomacy. They essentially declare him a neophyte, lacking a background in diplomacy sufficient enough for him to serve as the chief US diplomat. It was proffered by some observers that without the labored reasonings of experts, Tillerson’s intuitions would be uninspired. Such assessments were made for more harsh by the fact that such experts had not yet been appointed to many senior positions at the State Department. Critics appeared assured that Tillerson would languish in inaction on the seventh floor of the State Department headquarters. As it has turned out, those grim conclusions have approximated to slander against Tillerson. While some critics, albeit, would immediately point to the fact that he is still seeking to fill all senior positions in his organization, Tillerson has performed superbly and admirably as Secretary of State. That is best evinced by the expressions of approval and appreciation he has received from the president.

In decision making, the renowned Greek scholar and philosopher, Socrates, would refer to an inner voice or his daimon. The devil works his way through people and events. Yet,  unlike the noble pagan Socrates, Tillerson is a religious man who worships one God: God the Father. As such, he is aware of truth beyond the secular scale. Using the intellect and the will, one makes decisions. They are happy decisions when one is certain of their goodness. One engages in moral behavior when acting upon the desire to create goodness. In the development of relations with other countries, Tillerson is using what could described as a calm acceleration. Tillerson will convey US positions in bilateral meetings with foreign leaders and counterparts, but he will also seek to understand his interlocutor’s positions in a granular way. Tillerson is aware of the need to dig beneath the surface to understand where new, stronger, linkages can be established. He encourages his interlocutors to be frank about their concerns. He wants to hear how things look through their lenses. Understandings resulting from direct contact have allowed Tillerson to develop greater insight into issues concerning countries. Those insights in turn facilitate the development resolutions to issues of mutual interest. Additionally, Tillerson understands how to keep discreet matters confidental. Resolutions to difficult or nagging issues are less likely be found if they are contested over publicly. Secrete amicos admone, lauda palam. (Admonish your friends in secret; praise [them] openly.)

Tillerson displays a much appreciated wit and savoir faire in meetings, telephone calls, and statements with foreign leaders and counterparts. He will demonstrate that can be engaged in constructive, mutually satisfying dialogue. He will try to get to know his interlocutor and try to develop an amicable relationship. Among some he meets, there is often a preexisting relationship resulting from business contacts he had with them while he worked for ExxonMobil. As a top US business leader, he would often interact with senior foreign officials on a level and in a way rarely enjoyed by even senior US diplomats. Foreign leaders, officials, and business giants as well, were typically more relaxed in conversations with Tillerson then, even telling him things discreetly that US diplomats never would have heard. Some of those relationships became somewhat personal. Those relationships could possibly serve now as foundations for building trust beyond written documents and treaties while he is Secretary of State. Such relationships could allow Tillerson and an interlocutor to relax and explore territory outside their formal negotiating positions; discuss certain assumptions, strategies, and even fears. However, Tillerson would never sacrifice his principles to save a personal relationship with an interlocutor. A personal relationship through past business interactions will never serve to sway Tillerson in any way in US decision making in favor of another country’s needs. Tillerson can of course recognize the difference between an hackneyed exhibition of “adoration” for him and adoration directed at the US pocketbook through him. Tillerson’s sole interests now is performing his duty to his country under the guidance of the Trump administration’s policies, serving the people of the US, and obeying the US Constitution. Tillerson undoubtedly makes that perfectly clear in meetings when necessary.

Tillerson has already travelled to all corners of the world as Secretary of State, serving as Trump’s emissary at all international forums, negotiating treaties and other international agreements, and conducting everyday, face-to-face diplomacy.  As of this point, Tillerson has traveled 93,207.5 miles, traveled 35 days, and visited 17 countries. Non viribus et celeritate corporum magna gerimus, sed sapientia et sententia et arte. (We accomplish important things not with the strength and quickness of our bodies, but by intelligence and thought and skill.)

Tillerson (left) and United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (right). Through his contacts with foreign leaders and his counterparts, Tillerson has been able to transmit an authentic understanding of his thoughts and concerns on issues relevant to their countries, the policy positions of the US, and concepts and objectives of Trump to them. He encourages them to express their interests, share their concerns. He wants to hear how things look through their lenses.

Trump Supports His Secretary of State; Trump Insists Tillerson Is a Confidante

Quidquid dicendium est, libere dicam. (Whatever must be said, I shall say freely.) A quality that Trump liked about Tillerson when he selected him to be his Secretary of State is that he will roll over on his back and play nice in the face of controversy or challenges. To that extent, Tillerson has naturally had some disagreements with the White House over issues of importance to him. On those occasions, he does not speak in a roundabout way; he speaks directly. He chose his words carefully. They were proclamations of the truth meant to dispell wrong ideas and incorrect steps. For example, Tillerson voiced concern over being unable to make independent decisions about staffing at the State Department and about the organization in general. He reportedly expressed his displeasure with Johnny DeStefano, the head of the Office of Presidential Personnel, for torpedoing proposed nominees to senior State Department posts and for questioning his judgment. Tillerson complained that the White House was leaking damaging information about him to the news media, according to a person familiar with the meeting. Above all, he made clear that he did not want DeStefano’s office to “have any role in staffing” and “expressed frustration that anybody would know better” than he about who should work in his department–particularly after the president had promised him autonomy to make his own decisions and hires, according to a senior White House aide familiar with the conversation.

Tillerson lobbied Trump to allow the US to remain a signatory to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change,The 195-nation accord signed by US President Barack Obama set a goal of keeping the earth from warming by more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels. Tillerson’s argument was that leaving the agreement would diminish US influence in encouraging other countries to reduce their emissions, aides said. He did not argue that it would affect efforts to reduce US emissions. Nonetheless, Trump acted against Tillerson’s advice on the agreement, believing the US would be able to broker a new new agreement that would not put US businesses and workers at a disadvantage with developing economies like China and India. The majority of other signatory countries rejected the idea of renegotiating the accord. German Chancellor Angela Merkel led the chorus of leaders of countries that are allies, partners, and friends of the US, indeed spoke harshly about Trump’s decision to shun international consensus on the world’s most pressing issues and fanned fears that it was reflective of a greater US decision to abdicate its global leadership role. Journalists depicted Trump’s climate reversal as a challenge to Tillerson, who they alleged was very visibly trying to establish his credibility as the primary advocate of US foreign policy in the administration. Tillerson called Trump’s action a “policy decision.” He insisted the US could be proud of its “terrific record” in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, even before the Paris Agreement  took effect late last year. He tried to provide some perspective on the decision by stating: “I don’t think we’re going to change our ongoing efforts to reduce those emissions in the future.”

Tillerson had to contend with a very public coupe en deux pieces between the US Mission to the UN and the State Department. The statements of Trump administration’s US Permanent Representative to the UN,  Nikki Haley, a fellow Cabinet member, were deemed too far off message relative to other senior members of the administration. Other representatives on the UN Security Council began to view Haley as a source of authority on US policy. One foreign diplomat made the erroneous observation at the time that Haley had not only taken charge of determining what the administration’s posture would be at the UN, but broadened her responsibilities on a range of foreign policy issues. Their approaches to the US were being formulated based on her statements in that forum. It was all seen as a serious matter with the potential harm the US ability to implement steady policy in manner that would satisfy, and draw other governments to its points of view. An email sent from State Department diplomats to the Office of the US Permanent Representative to the UN urged the Mission to rely on “building blocks” written by the department to prepare remarks for Haley. Haley’s aides were also urged to ensure that her public remarks were “re-cleared with Washington,” especially if they were substantively different from the building blocks, or if they were on a high-profile issue such as Syria, Iran, Israel-Palestine, or the North Korea.

Additionally, Tillerson has reportedly been a bit uneasy about Trump’s use of Twitter or a speech to establish foreign policy that is in variance with his best advice. Yet, all of that being stated, Tillerson’s fidelity to his president remains beyond question. No matter how the president might decide on an issue, Tillerson has stood side-by side with him. He never has backed away or tried to stand in the middle of road.

Tillerson has spent considerable time with Trump. He is confident of Trump’s support for him. Trump, has left no doubt that he is very satisfied with Tillerson. The day will very unlikely arrive when Tillerson will say his efforts have been futile and then abandon his post. In his years at ExxonMobil, Tillerson was never known to have left tasks unfinished. Tillerson has spoken publicly about his commitment to service and the call he heard to take on the role of chief diplomat. On July 21, 2017, Tillerson remarked:  “I’m still developing myself as a values-based servant leader, and this new opportunity that I have to serve our country has provided me with new ways of learning … so it gives me a chance to grow as a leader.” Having that mindset allows Tillerson to heal any exasperation,any sense of futility that he may feel. Vincit qui se vincit. (He conquers, who conquers himself.)

Tillerson (left) and Trump (right). Tillerson has spent considerable time with Trump. He is confident of Trump’s support for him. Trump, has left no doubt that he is very satisfied with Tillerson. Tillerson will unlikely say one day that his efforts have been futile and then abandon his post. In his years at ExxonMobil, Tillerson was never known to have left tasks unfinished. Tillerson has spoken publicly about his commitment to service and the call he heard to take on the job of Secretary of State.

Coping with the Unparalleled Criticism of the Administration and Himself

Quid enim est stultius quam incerta pro certis habere, falsa pro veris? (What, indeed, is more foolish than to consider uncertainties as certain, falsehoods as truths?) Even before Trump was sworn in as president, stories swirled in the newsmedia about alleged lurid activities of administration officials to gain Russia’s assistance in order to defeat Trump’s main competitor in the 2016 US Presidential Election, former Senator Hillary Clinton. Those allegations set off a number of official investigations of former campaign staff and a few administration officials. There was a Congressional investigation open to public view; an investigation by a Special Counsel appointed by the US Department of Justice which closed even to Trump; and assays were very likely initiated by certain watchdog organizations within the US intelligence community. Trump has stirred the pot a bit on the investigations through his use of Twitter and teasing voracious journalists, hungry for every morsel of news about his thinking and the inner working of the White House on the Russia matter. He once hinted about possessing recordings of important conversations on the matter with a very senior law enforcement. He later admitted that did no such recordings existed As time has passed, many public allegations made against Trump were also collapsed by the truth.

Tillerson wanted to avoid that whole cabaret. He took a few temporary steps in order to protect his serenity of mind and put all his attention on the sizable responsibilities of his new job. Tillerson stayed far from the limelight. He had no desire to be the man of the moment. He did not appear in front of both reporters and TV cameras to confirm his place as the nation’s chief diplomat unlike many of his predecessors during the past 6 decades, or spend much time with journalist before or after meetings with foreign leaders and counterparts. Journalists were surprised when they were told by the State Department they would not be allowed onboard his plane during a diplomatic trip to Japan, South Korea, and China. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who met with Tillerson over lunch during the first week of March 2017 acknowledged: “The normal tendency when you come into that job [Secretary of State] is to increase your visibility and to show that you are present and in charge.” Kissinger went on to explain: “He [Tillerson] wanted to first inform himself of all the nuances. I was impressed by the confidence and self-assurance that he showed.” Ultimately, Tillerson could not avoid, and was certainly not spared from, disharmonious contacts with the US newsmedia similar to those that other Cabinet members and White House officials were encountering. Critics were aflutter at Tillerson’s every move during the first few months of his tenure. They would often report that he was absent at meetings with foreign leaders at the White House.

Before Trump was inaugurated, stories swirled in the newsmedia about alleged activities of campaign staff and administration officials to gain Russia’s assistance to defeat Trump’s rival in the 2016 US Presidential Election. He took a few steps to protect his serenity of mind and fix his attention on his new job’s responsibilities. He did not appear in front of journalists and TV cameras to confirm his place as chief diplomat. Ultimately, he could not avoid difficult newsmedia contacts.

Critics tried to drag Tillerson into the Russia matter. They wildly assert that while serving as Chief Executive Officer at ExxonMobil, he developed unusually close ties to Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. Those ostensibly could have allowed him to garner Russia’s assistance for Trump. Attempts to substantiate the nature of the alleged relationship focused on Putin’s decision to award Tillerson the Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors a foreigner can be bestowed by Russia. In reality, the medal awarded on June 21, 2013 was in appreciation for efforts Tillerson made as Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil to broker a deal between the company and the state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft. Tillerson was presented with the medal in St. Petersburg, Russia on the same dais with the Chairman of ENI, an Italian multinational oil and gas company. Such accusations are simply surmisals reflective of a blinding, uncontrollable anger found within a counter-Trump milieu. It is a discourse, not formally organized but possessing defined elements (e.g.,  certain TV news programs and editorial sections of newspapers and magazines, websites, blogs, chat rooms, and podcasts) in which participants, observers of the administration, direct rage at anything pertaining to Trump. It originated in the US but is now engaged in globally. It becomes exhausting to watch from the outside. In fairness, it may very well be that those who develop such reports about Tillerson on the Russia matter are ostensibly not driven by the intention to do harm. However, that benignancy is often difficult to detect. Within reason, one could more easily perceive it all as an ominous effort to neutralize a senior member of the US diplomatic, political, military, and economic decision making apparatus. By mid-2017, allegations about links between Tillerson and the Russia matter faded a bit. Despite the unpleasantness of it all, Tillerson was not left appearing cold and muddled. He remained sanguine. He kept his dignity intact. Superanda omnis fortuna ferendo est. (Every misfortune is to be subdued by patience.)

About 6 months into his job, when Tillerson decided to spend 6 days–July 21-July 26, 2017–out of the public view, certain news media houses, very likely hoping for a news splash, propagated stories about Tillerson’s coming resignation. US State Department Bureau of Public Affairs Spokesperson Heather Nauert said that he was, “taking a little time off.” She continued, “He does have the ability to go away for a few days on his own … just taking a little time off.” She also said: “He’s got a lot of work. He just came back from that mega-trip from overseas–as you all well know, many of you were there for the G-20, and his other travel as well, so he’s entitled to taking a few days himself.”

The attention of the US newsmedia would then shift from the idea that Tillerson was tendering his resignation to the possibility that he had taken time off to réfléchir, think it over. Reports that Tillerson planned to resign, like a vampire, rose again after his short holiday. The State Department tried to push back on them. At a department’s briefing on July 25, 2017,  Spokesperson Heather Nauert said “That is false,” when asked about the rumors.  Nauert continued by saying: “The secretary has been very clear: He intends to stay here at the State Department. We have a lot of work that is left to be done ahead of us. He recognizes that. He’s deeply engaged in that work.” She added: “He does, however, serve at the pleasure of the president, just as any Cabinet official.”

However, the magnitude and tempo of misleading reports of Tillerson’s dissatisfaction and desire to resign reached a crescendo loud enough that on July 26, 2017, he was driven to respond to the issue.  Normally, Tillerson would consider responding to the newsmedia over such a matter as counterproductive. However, he no doubt recognized that the broadcasting and publishing of surmisals about his plans would soon begin to have chilling effect on his relationships with foreign leaders and his counterparts and impact US foreign policy efforts in general. It would only be natural for foreign capitals to wonder what it was ithat the US newsmedia knew that they did not know. When asked by reporters at the State Department whether he was considering leaving his post, Tillerson declared, “I’m not going anywhere.”  When pressed with the follow-up question of how long he would stay on, Tillerson turned and smiled, saying, “As long as the president lets me.” Asked about his relationship with President Donald Trump, Tillerson said simply, “Good.”

Tillerson (left), US Secretary of Defense James Mattis (center), and US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford (right) It may be that those who develop false and contemptuous reports about Tillerson on the Russia matter have no intention to do harm, but that benignancy is often difficult to detect. One could also view it as an effort to neutralize a senior member of the US diplomatic, political, military, and economic decision making apparatus.

With Trump’s Support, Tillerson Will Make His Mark

In Ulysses, Alfred Lloyd Tennyson wrote: “Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven,that which we are, we are, One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Ahead of this nascent period of the administration, into what may be the first of possibly two terms for Trump, Tillerson would like to introduce some considerable changes to the organization that he leads. The personal and working relationship between Trump and Tillerson will determine whether the Secretary of State will be able to execute an ambitious plan to revamp his department; a significant effort that will viewed as an important part of Trump’s legacy as president. Tillerson announced his plans to restructure the US organism for diplomacy during his May 3, 2017 presentation to the rank and file of the department in its Dean Acheson Auditorium. He explained his desire to make the department a more agile, collaborative workplace. It would become a more diverse landscape of ideas and solutions.

Tillerson remarked that the Department of State was the first cabinet created and chartered under the Constitution, and the Secretary of State was the first cabinet position chartered and created under the Constitution. He assured the department’s rank and file that during his tenure, they would carve out their increment of the department’s living history. Tillerson understands that in planning this transformation, he should not try make circumstances fit plans, but rather plans should be developed to fit circumstances. Tillerson explained that he had no preconceived notions of the outcome of this effort. He was not bringing a solution to the department. His plan is not to tear things down but craft ways to improve on what is already being done. Tillerson explained that once he acquired an understanding of how work is effectively done at the department and then put an organizational structure in place to support that process. Verum et factum convertuntur. (The true and the made are interchangeable. [One can know with certainty only what he has created himself.])

Tillerson at the Acheson Auditorium at the State Department (above). Tillerson would like to introduce some changes to the organization that he leads. The personal and working relationship between Trump and Tillerson will determine whether he will be able to execute his ambitious plan to revamp his department; an audacious effort that will be seen as an important part of Trump’s legacy. His plan is not tear down, but improve on what is being done.

The Way Forward

In Act V, Scene vii of William Shakespeare’s play, The Life of King Henry the Fifth, events surrounding King Henry’s invasion of France have reached their climax. Having captured the town of Harfleur, the English force prepares for a decisive battle at Agincourt. King Henry and one of his captains, Fluellen, reminisce about how the King’s great uncle, Edward the Black Prince, once defeated the French nearby. Fluellen reminds the King that just as he, his birthplace was in Wales and declares his pride over being the King’s fellow countryman. Fluellen states: “By Jeshu, I am your majesty’s countryman, I care not who know it; I will confess it to all the ‘orld: I need not to be ashamed of your majesty, praised be God, so long as your majesty is an honest man.” Tillerson respects his president and is loyal to him. He likes his job and is striving to perform it successfully. Through his contacts with foreign leaders and his counterparts, Tillerson has been able to convey his thoughts and concerns on issues relevant to both countries, the policy positions of the US, and Trump’s concepts and intent. He encourages them to express their interests and share their concerns. What is voiced does not lie inert in some report. Tillerson uses it to formulate policy approaches to those countries and develop resolution to issues. Following direct contact with Tillerson, foreign leaders and officials, who have undoubtedly sought to keep themselves au courant with the public discourse in the US on Trump, would realize that they have acquired almost nothing useful from reports developed from the abstract that were laced with inferred and interpolated information, conceptualizations, and fabrications from the counter-Trump milieu. They undobtedly ignore, or give far less weight to reporting of identifiable critics toward the Trump administration. That very likely has already had the effect of facilitating their efforts to sort out issues of mutual concern with the US and making them more comfortable in their dealings with the Trump administration. Illa argumenta visa sunt et gravia et certa. (Those arguments seemed both weighty and reliable.)

Tillerson learned many things in 41 years as he moved up the ranks in ExxonMobil. One thing Tillerson learned well was how to be a team player. His approach is not, in a parochial way, to elbow a better position for his organization on a policy matter, but rather to garner acknowledgement of his organization’s responsibility for US diplomacy and its primary role in formulating and implementing US foreign policy. His approach is not designed to merely better the aesthetics of his organization. An interior designer could best do that. Tillerson would like to enhance capabilities department wide and heighten its prestige globally as the premier foreign policy establishment. Correlatively, the department’s heightened prestige will be a reflection of its accomplishments.  The State Department will not be on the sidelines in the Trump administration and it will not retreat from diplomatic challenges because previous administrations have called them intractable or conundrums. Resolutions to issues will be found by Tillerson’s people. Ad utilitatem vitae omnia consilia factaque nobis regenda sunt. (All our plans and actions must be directed by us to the benefit of our life.)

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.)