The White House gave no indication the US intended to intervene more broadly in Syria’s civil war after Thursday night’s bombing. Yet the contours of the west’s response may be changing.
On Saturday, UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson cancelled a planned trip to Moscow for high-level meetings on Monday after coordinating with the US, saying he would meet instead with his Group of Seven peers in Italy to discuss the Syrian crisis and “Russia’s support for Assad."
“I discussed these plans in detail" with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Johnson said in a statement. “He will visit Moscow as planned and, following the G7 meeting, will be able to deliver that clear and coordinated message to the Russians." Johnson called on Russia “to do everything possible to bring about a political settlement in Syria."
Russia pushed back. “Our western colleagues live in their own parallel reality, in which they first try to build joint plans single-handedly and then—again single-handedly—change them, inventing absurd reasons," Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said by phone.
The US “is the most unpredictable state," Zakharova said earlier on state TV, terming Trump’s missile strike “self-affirmation in the face of the most severe domestic political struggle." Russia will press Tillerson on the strike when he visits, she said.
On Friday, US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that Assad’s government “must never use chemical weapons again, ever." Iran and Russia bear responsibility for propping up the Syrian leader and perpetuating the bloody six-year-old conflict there, she said.
“The United States took a very measured step last night," Haley told a meeting of the Security Council. “We are prepared to do more."
US President Donald Trump’s decision to launch the cruise missile strike after accusing Assad of using deadly sarin gas against civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun was widely interpreted as more a warning than a major shift to a strategy of toppling the regime.
It also sent a message to President Vladimir Putin that Trump’s often-expressed desire to improve US relations with Moscow has limits.
Administration officials indicated that the US approach in Syria, which includes air cover for groups battling Islamic State forces and hundreds of ground troops training and supporting them, isn’t expanding. Trump’s position, like that of former President Barack Obama, has been that the fight against Islamic State is the first priority, and that the fate of the Assad regime will be up to some political process involving Syrian rebel groups at a later date.
Tillerson said Thursday that the strike on the airbase from which Syrian government forces launched a chemical attack this week was a proportionate response to the use of prohibited weapons.
“I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today," Tillerson said at a press briefing after the US action. “There’s been no change in that status."
White House press secretary Sean Spicer reinforced that on Friday. “First and foremost, the president believes that the Syrian government, the Assad regime, should at the minimum agree to abide by the agreements they made not to use chemical weapons," he said.
Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said the US will announce “in the near future" fresh sanctions on Syria aimed at deterring countries and companies from doing business with Assad’s government.
Trump ran for president on a promise to focus on US domestic interests, criticizing the foreign entanglements of his predecessors. But when he announced the strikes late Thursday at his Palm Beach, Florida, club, while hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump said he was moved by the images of the more than 70 men, women and children who died in the 4 April gas attack.
“No child of God should ever suffer such horror," Trump said.
He also said during his campaign that he wanted to reestablish a more cooperative relationship with Russia, particularly in the fight against Islamic State and other terrorist groups. But that goal now is threatened, as is the tenuous US-Russian coordination in Syria. The conflict began with Assad cracking down on protests in Damascus, and over six years has morphed into a war involving the US, Russia, Iran and Turkey, as well as multiple extremist groups and militias backed by regional powers such as Saudi Arabia.
Russia officials said they would suspend as of Saturday military-to-military communications designed to prevent conflicts between Russian and US warplanes operating in the skies over Syria. A US defence official said Russia answered the phone as usual when the US called on Friday.
Putin condemned the attack on the Syrian air base as an “act of aggression against a sovereign state." Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the US strikes put the world’s two biggest nuclear-armed powers “on the verge of a military clash" and dashed any remaining hopes that Trump would bring an improvement in relations.
Complicit or incompetent?
Tillerson, who’s due to meet with officials in Moscow next week, said Russia was “complicit" in Syria’s use of chemical weapons or “incompetent" for having failed to keep its end of a 2013 agreement that was supposed to remove Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
Russia’s response to the airstrikes and Assad’s actions discouraged hopes they might take a new approach, he said. “I find it very disappointing but, sadly, I have to tell you not all that surprising," Tillerson said at a briefing in Florida on Friday.
At the Pentagon, a military official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said the US is assessing any information that would implicate the Russians knew or assisted in the latest poison-gas attack.
The US detected a drone, belonging either to the Syrian regime or Russia, flying above a nearby hospital as victims from the chemical attack poured in, the official said. About five hours later, the drone returned overhead and the hospital was struck by a Russian-made fixed-wing aircraft, the official said, adding it wasn’t clear who was operating the aircraft. The US is interested in whether the hospital strike was done to potentially hide evidence of the chemical attack.
Any deeper US involvement in Syria is bound to draw scrutiny from Congress. After the missile strike, lawmakers from both parties gave cautious support to Trump’s limited response. While Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have renewed their calls for the use of US troops to topple Assad, most members of Congress said Trump would need their consent for a more aggressive strategy.
“My concern has been mostly that this is an inappropriate way to begin a war, that the Constitution says war begins with a vote in Congress," Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said Saturday on CNN. Bloomberg