by Mark N. Katz
After Trump’s election in November, he and some of his close advisers were optimistic about the possibility of improving Russian-American relations. They even were considering a “grand bargain” on strategic nuclear weapons, Ukraine, Europe more broadly, Iran, and Syria. There was also optimism in Russia about this.
But it didn’t take long after Trump’s inauguration in January before it became clear both in Washington and Moscow that Russia and America were not going to overcome most of the outstanding differences. There was still optimism, though, about the possibility of Russian-American cooperation in Syria, especially regarding the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). But after the Trump administration’s attack on a Syrian air base in response to what appears to be the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own population, now even this is gone.
Russian officials, as well as the Russian media, have been highly critical of Trump’s action. Further, Russia has begun moving military assets to Syria in order to deter any additional American cruise missile attacks. Moscow has also suspended the 2015 agreement made with the Obama administration on preventing incidents between Russian and American aircraft. Instead of an arena of joint cooperation against IS that Trump frequently said it could be, Syria has now become a potential flashpoint between American and Russian forces.
If Moscow really did act to influence the November 2016 U.S. presidential elections in Trump’s favor, Putin may now be wondering whether the effort was worth it. He might even think now that he bet on the wrong candidate. The attack Trump launched in Syria, as well as the support for his move expressed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and several other governments, indicates that Putin cannot rely on the new administration and America’s allies to support Russian efforts to stabilize—much less legitimize—Assad’s rule. The new American president, in other words, is not going to be the partner in Syria that Putin might not just have hoped but expected Trump would be.
Trump’s revulsion for the use of chemical weapons against Syrian children was clearly heartfelt, and his ordering of a cruise missile attack on the Syrian government air base that the U.S. government believes it was launched from appears to have been motivated, at least in part, by a sense of moral outrage. But even if the U.S. attack on the Syrian air base succeeds in halting the Assad regime from further chemical weapons attacks against its opponents (and others), it clearly won’t halt Assad’s use of conventional weapons against them. Indeed, after the U.S. missile attack, the Assad regime launched a conventional assault on the same area it reportedly struck with chemical weapons.
Neither Trump nor anyone else is going to succeed in inducing the Assad regime to stop its indiscriminate attacks against the Syrian population unless Assad fears his own survival is at risk. But doing anything like this, especially when Assad is receiving strong support from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, is not something that the Trump administration is able, or even willing, to attempt.
Trump’s recent use of force, then, is not going to prevent Putin and others from keeping Assad in power or the Syrian regime from prevailing against most (if not all) of its opponents. On the other hand, Russian support for a regime that gasses its own citizens is not something that will help Moscow persuade Western and Middle Eastern governments to contribute to any Russian-sponsored reconstruction effort on behalf of such a regime. And unless such a reconstruction effort occurs, Moscow (along with Tehran) will be hard pressed to keep Syria pacified (assuming they can manage it in the first place).
Although there is now a heightened risk of a direct Russian-American clash in Syria, Washington and Moscow are likely to take great care to prevent this. But as a result of this most recent episode, the ability of Trump and Putin to cooperate in Syria is not likely to extend much beyond this. If Syria was the last best hope for cooperation between Trump and Putin on an issue that divided Obama and Putin, then there is clearly no hope for Russian-American cooperation on any major issue that they now disagree on.