Over the weekend – while Bashar al-Assad was maybe busy dropping white phosphorous on Idlib – the story was the lack of a coherent story from the Trump administration with regard to “what’s next” in Syria.
The media was particularly critical of the seemingly mixed messages being sent by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.
One message that wasn’t “mixed” however, was a newly critical take on the Kremlin’s foreign policy. That was echoed by virtually every US official one cared to consult including Tillerson who is set to arrive in Moscow for meetings on Tuesday.
Tillerson called Russia “incompetent” in interviews aired on Sunday and as The New York Times notes, this seems to reflect “his expectations that the American relationship with Russia is already reverting to the norm: one of friction, distrust and mutual efforts to undermine each other’s reach.”
“This was inevitable,” said Philip H. Gordon, a former Middle East coordinator at the National Security Council who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Trump’s early let’s-be-friends initiative was incompatible with our interests, and you knew it would end with tears.”
And by “tears” Gordon means dead Syrians.
But while the tension is already palpable, it’s likely to reach a fever pitch in the days ahead as the US ponders whether Moscow had a role in last week’s deadly chemical attacks.
“I think what we should do is ask Russia, how could it be, if you have advisers at that airfield, that you didn’t know that the Syrian air force was preparing and executing a mass murder attack with chemical weapons?” national security adviser H.R. McMaster said on Fox News, in what we can safely assume is a question Mike Flynn would not have asked.
“Russia should ask themselves, what are we doing here?,” McMaster continued, before insisting that the Kremlin should ask itself “why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population and using the most heinous weapons available?”
Of course we already know some of the answers to those questions. Syria is Russia’s foothold in the Mideast and preserving the Assad regime is absolutely critical for Moscow’s allies in Tehran who need the Alawite government to remain in place so that the country can continue to be used as a weapons corridor for Hezbollah and as a linchpin in the IRGC’s efforts to preserve the Shiite crescent.
You’ll hear stories about gas pipelines and energy interests and while there’s probably some truth there, the idea that this isn’t primarily about Russia backing its allies in Iran and, in turn, primarily about the sectarian divide, is patently absurd. And any expert on Mideast affairs will tell you as much.
But what’s relevant for Americans is the extent to which this devolves into a finger pointing exercise where Moscow is ultimately implicated in chemical attacks. More poignantly, what exactly is going on behind the scenes here?
Because as we’ve said on more occasions than we care to count since last Monday, it seems awfully convenient that all of this comes as the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Moscow looked to be on the verge of a breakthrough.