Day: April 11, 2017
In Moscow today, Secretary of State Tillerson will try to convince the Russians to abandon President Assad and opt instead for a political process that would replace him and begin the transition away from the Ba’athist dictatorship that has governed Syria since 1963. Tillerson will argue that Assad’s April 4 use of chemical weapons against his opponents de-legitimates his rule and embarrasses Russia, which helped negotiate the 2013 UN Security Council agreement under which Syria was to surrender or destroy its chemical weapons and its capacity to make them.
It isn’t going to work. Russia is still denying that Assad was responsible for last week’s attack, which the Americans claim was launched from an air base at which Russian forces were present. President Putin has declined to see Tillerson, a clear indication that Russia is not planning to change its tune. Moscow wants an international investigation of the chemical incident, which it claims may have been caused by a conventional bomb falling on an opposition chemical weapons depot. The publicly available information contradicts that hypothesis.
While sounding reasonable, an international investigation would tie up the issue of what to do about the incident for months if not years, sowing doubt and allowing other issues to claim priority. The Russians know well who used the chemical weapons. There are even suspicions that they knew in advance. It would be difficult to keep the loading of chemical weapons secret on a base they share with the Syrian Air Force.
There is little likelihood Moscow will abandon its support for Assad. The Russians have had many opportunities to do so during the past six years but have consistently chosen to double, triple and quadruple down to try to ensure he wins, even while claiming not to be wedded to him. With each decision, they have gone deeper into the cul-de-sac. It beggars the imagination to think they might back out now that Assad is beating his more moderate opposition and driving Syrians who oppose him into the arms of extremists. The Russians will argue that there is no viable alternative to Assad, and that he is vital to countering terrorists.
Tillerson, who has only recently found his tongue and begun to speak about international affairs, is holding a bad hand. His denunciation of Assad’s inhumane treatment of Syrians sounds hollow, as until now he has shown indifference to humanitarian concerns. Not much more than a week ago, the Trump Administration was talking about how Assad would unfortunately have to be left in power while Washington focuses on the war against the Islamic State. President Trump has still not said anything different. If he has in mind a strategy for Syria that ends Assad’s rule, he is keeping it a secret.
What looked like a big cruise missile attack last week will be derided as a pin prick next month unless something more is done, either through diplomacy or the use of force. The diplomacy looks as if it is headed for failure in Moscow. America’s G7 partners apparently failed to agree to new sanctions against Russia in their meeting yesterday in Italy. Further military force risks Syrian, Iranian and Russian escalation that Washington won’t want to respond to. Tillerson’s tilt in favor of humanitarian intervention and against Assad is unlikely to produce near-term results that make America look great again.