Until only a week ago, Donald Trump was being questioned on the danger of his closeness to Putin. But following the U.S. attack on a Syrian military airbase, tensions have escalated to such an extent that the Kremlin is now reporting relations between Washington and Moscow to be at their worst since the end of the Cold War. Both sets of circumstances are probably exaggerated rhetoric. What is certain is that three months after Trump entered the White House, we are witnessing the first clash of geopolitical interests of the two superpowers over who influences global governance. A worrying situation for everyone.
Yesterday’s visit to Moscow by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was an attempt to ease tensions and to bring opposing stances on Syria closer together. Although it was expected that reaching an understanding would currently be impossible, the meetings with Sergey Lavrov and Putin, who finally met with Tillerson, show that both sides are keen on keeping channels of communication open.
It is not easy to understand what has led Trump to change his strategy in Syria in a matter of days and, in so doing, to put Putin in a situation in which he has to choose between working together with the U.S. or supporting Bashar Assad. For months, while considering cooperation with the Kremlin to defeat the Islamic State, the Republican president contended that the fall of the Syrian dictator wasn’t a priority. The White House has justified the U-turn in Syria with the fact that Assad crossed a red line with last week’s chemical weapons attack, which left more than 80 people dead. But it appears that, with the military action in Damascus which was intended as a deterrent, Trump has also issued a warning to the world: that the rules of realpolitik are more important than his isolationist promises.
As was expected sooner rather than later, the opinion of the U.S. administration is now that the United States ought to continue in its role as a global police force. And, to make this point clear, it was necessary to warn Russia that it could not continue to have everything its own way in Syria, as there are too many interests at stake in the civil war that is slowly killing the country and there are many powers fighting for supremacy in this diplomatic game of chess. Trump has therefore returned to traditional U.S. defense and security policies. This U-turn has caught Moscow as off guard and by surprise as it has the rest of the international community. But Russia is not about to give in because, in the last 12 months, Syria has provided a platform on which it has been able to reclaim its role of superpower after being globally marginalized by Western sanctions following the illegal annexation of Crimea.
With things as they are, the clash of interests is inevitable and, at the same time, extremely damaging, as much for ending the war in Syria as for the international struggle against the Islamic State group. Both of these issues require cooperation between Washington and Moscow. That is why it is neither appropriate to turn a blind eye to Russia’s conduct, which effectively grants the Assad regime impunity for its actions – which include crimes against humanity – nor is it desirable that the White House embark on a strategy that distances it from the Kremlin because, as mentioned, they need to be able to communicate while they are within the Syrian hornets’ nest.
It is becoming less and less clear whether politics and diplomacy are the art of the possible or the impossible. As things stand, it seems that rapprochement could only occur if Moscow agrees to give up Assad in exchange for the U.S. resigning itself to the current Syrian regime staying on. This is not a contradiction in terms. The Kremlin isn’t interested in shoring up the current dictator so much as in ensuring the regime controlled by the Alawite minority is allowed to continue.
This would maintain the status quo in the region – let’s not forget that Syria today is the political playing field of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Sunni nations, and Iran. And, above all, it would guarantee Russia its strategic positions in the Mediterranean and could cover the bill for its involvement in the Syrian conflict. It escapes no one that the Kremlin has its eye on the millions of works of reconstruction needed in the country, as well as the profitable oil and gas contracts it has wrested from its ally Assad.
We should all be ashamed that the war in Syria is still going on. And Russia’s role leaves a lot to be desired. But the multilateral solutions essential to stop the bloodshed in the Middle East inevitably draw Moscow toward global governance. Trump has always been right on this.