Welcome to the 21st century Cold War. The gaping chasm between the regimes in Washington and Moscow, aggravated by the Syrian crisis, has not stopped the two presidents from talking on their “red phones” as often as two good friends. That said, the supposed camaraderie between the two has cooled as the months have passed. In their third phone call since Donald Trump entered the White House, the two leaders, who have both benefited from the magnate’s electoral success – be it actively or passively and seemingly with a level of mutual understanding – have now stopped the mutual back-patting that was a feature of their first call. Yesterday, against a much more fraught backdrop, Trump and Putin began searching for answers to the Syrian problem, where Moscow continues to support Bashar Assad’s dictatorship in the face of global demand for a humanitarian end to the war following the regime’s chemical weapons attack on Damascus. Minutes before the call, the Kremlin indicated at which point in the conversation they would raise the possibility of establishing a humanitarian zone, as well as the possibility of reviving diplomatic efforts and finding a definitive recipe for peace in Syria.
The bombing of one of the regime’s military bases seems to have altered the ever-changing strategies in the conflict, although it is not known in what way. The U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at Shayrat Airbase; investigations have concluded it was from here that the regime had weeks earlier launched a chemical weapons attack at the opposition-held city of Homs. The decision taken by Trump has moved the conflict onto new ground and broken with Obama’s passive military policy toward Assad. Despite Moscow’s fevered condemnation of the American attack, which Putin went so far as to classify as “an aggression against a sovereign state” while denying that Assad would use chemical weapons, the abstention of China on the U.N. Security Council has left Putin uncomfortably isolated on the international stage. Washington hopes to make the most of its bombing of Assad.
Escalation of Tensions
From that point, tensions between Russia and the U.S. have not stopped rising, as confirmed during Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s last visit to Moscow, after which Trump stated that, “at no point in recent history have relations between both countries been so bad.”* Furthermore, the Kremlin announced it was breaking off military communications with the U.S. on Syrian soil, the means by which, in a maelstrom of competing groups – some of which are jihadi, and where the Islamic State continues to represent a common enemy – the two maintained a minimum level of operative coordination.
*Editor’s note: Trump’s actual words were that U.S. relations with Russia were at “an all-time low” over the Syria crisis.