President Trump’s Tomahawk strikes on a Syrian airbase Thursday evening has — predictably — incensed Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s indispensable ally in the Syrian civil war. In response, Russia has announced it is taking swift new steps to bolster Assad and dropping an agreement with the US on the use of airspace in Syria that could make a clash between the two world powers more likely.
Russian President Vladimir Putin slammed the US strike as an act of "aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law." Russia claims the pretext for the US strike — Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians earlier in the week that killed at least 85 people — is false.
“The Syrian army has no chemical weapons at its disposal,” said Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for Putin, on Friday. (There’s plenty of evidence that Assad did carry out the attack using chemical weapons, which Turkish health officials have identified as the banned nerve gas sarin.)
Moscow announced that it will strengthen Syria’s air defense systems and, according to the New York Times, is “planning to send a frigate into the Mediterranean Sea to visit the logistics base at the Syrian port of Tartus.” More jarringly, Russia said it’s suspending an agreement that allows the US and Russia to coordinate their air operations in Syria so as to prevent accidental midair collisions between their aircraft.
Peskov’s explanation for why Russia has decided to drop the pact, which would presumably make accidents more likely, was rather snarky: “Amid the missile strikes, it is hardly reasonable to talk about any more increase in the risk, as the risk has increased considerably,” Peskov said in a news briefing.
Both Moscow’s rhetoric and its announced policy changes are a clear message to Trump meant to discourage him from escalating attacks on the Assad regime with future strikes. Assad is Putin’s closest Mideast ally, and Russia is making it plain that their relationship is as strong as ever.
Which makes the odds of Trump fulfilling his campaign goal of a warmer US relationship with Russia considerably bleaker — and they were already pretty grim.
Trump’s Russia ties make action on Russia tougher
Since taking office, the Trump administration has been plagued by reports of extensive links between Trump associates and the Kremlin, which have resulted in an FBI probe that could potentially result in criminal charges and investigations in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Those investigations have hamstrung Trump’s ability to take steps to improve US-Russian relations, the most obvious one being a lifting of sanctions.
This strike makes things even worse. The US and Russia have been on different sides of the Syrian civil war for years, with Russia backing Assad and the US backing rebels who want to unseat him. But the US has refrained from deliberately attacking Assad or Russian forces directly, and instead focused most of its attention in Syria on fighting ISIS.
Thursday’s strike against the airbase, then, represents a dramatic shift in that dynamic — a more direct US confrontation with Assad and, by extension, with Putin.
At the moment, it’s too early to tell if this strike will truly be a one-off attempt at deterrence, as Trump’s speech on Thursday evening seemed to imply, or if it will be followed by more strikes or even a more muscular military intervention. What we do know is that the strike makes the prospect of a warming in US-Russian relations recede that much further into the distance.