Airstrikes in Syria further complicate Trump’s relationship with Russia
On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered missile strikes against a Syrian airbase in response to a deadly chemical attack against Syrian civilians, for which the U.S. holds Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responsible.
And considering Russia’s strong ties to the Assad regime, the U.S. strike is in clear defiance of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Elliot Tepper, distinguished senior fellow at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
“The surprise was that the go-ahead was given because this is a direct affront to Russia,” said Tepper. “Russia has now tossed the ball into Trump’s court. Russia has raised the ante — saying ‘you thought you were pushing us around with this strike but you were wrong.'”
In the wake of the strike, Putin said in a statement he considers it an act of aggression in violation of international law.
“This move by Washington … has dealt a serious blow to Russian-U.S. relations, which are already in a poor state,” Putin said.
WATCH: Russia calls Syria attack ‘flagrant violation of international law’
Russia has ramped up its defences in the region and threatened to cut off a hotline with the U.S. that’s used to prevent midair collisions of the two countries’ warplanes in Syria.
“The Russians in effect have said, ‘We’re calling your bluff,'” said Tepper.
“We’ll have to see how the Trump administration responds.”
For months there has been speculation and, more recently, an investigation into how much contact Trump’s team has had with Russian officials, and if the two camps are working together to further a shared agenda.
The intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia meddled in the U.S. election’s outcome has added fuel to the fire.
The Trump administration was clearly sending a strong message that they are not under Putin’s thumb, said Renan Levine, assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, Scarborough.
However, the move could be in part to prove that Russian ties to Trump’s camp don’t exist — or to hide that they do.
“In many ways, the severity of the response could be understood as perhaps a way to show that they are not beholden,” said Levine.
“Part of the motivation for this response could very well be that ‘well, if we don’t do something then the accusations that we’re pawns of the Kremlin would only increase.'”
“Given the controversy of this White House’s relationship with the Kremlin, that is without a doubt in their minds as they were weighing a response to the chemical weapon attacks. And they may have been eager for an opportunity to demonstrate some independence,” said Levin.
Trump’s team could have seen this as an opportunity to show it is independent and all collusion accusations are rubbish.
He said all eyes will be on Trump’s and Putin’s next moves in what amounts to a “chess game.”
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has strong ties to Russia and was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship in 2013 — the highest honour bestowed on foreign citizens — will be in Moscow next week.
“There’s a chance … he’s going to say ‘look, everybody relax, this is really not a change in course,'” said Tepper. “On the other hand, he may say, ‘this is a change of course, we don’t want to accept the status quo, we don’t want to accept Russia being the decision-maker for what happens to the future of the region … nor do we want the Assad regime to stay.”
Russia’s backing of Assad is key to the Syrian president’s hold on the region.
“As long as the Russians continue to back him … [Assad] is not in danger, his grip on the country is not in danger,” said Tepper.
Further complicating matters, on Friday the U.S. announced it was investigating whether Russia participated in the Syrian chemical attack that provoked the airstrikes, a revelation that could have dramatic implications for relations between Washington and Moscow.
After six years of war in Syria this could be a tipping point, said Tepper.
“We are at some kind of a cusp: will this finally lead to some kind of a resolution to the horrific carnage on the ground by all sides, will the suffering finally end?” said Tepper.
“Or is this going to be a one-off, business as usual for all sides starting tomorrow?”
— With a file from Global News reporter Rahul Kalvapalle and the Associated Press
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