Cracks form in Trump administration’s relationship with Russia after strike against Syria

“Washington’s move substantially damages Russian-U.S. relations, which are already in a deplorable state.”

This frame grab from video provided by the Syrian official TV shows the burned and damaged hangar warplanes which attacked by U.S. Tomahawk missiles, at the Shayrat Syrian government forces airbase, southeast of Homs, Syria, early on April 7. CREDIT: Syrian government TV, via AP
This frame grab from video provided by the Syrian official TV shows the burned and damaged hangar warplanes which attacked by U.S. Tomahawk missiles, at the Shayrat Syrian government forces airbase, southeast of Homs, Syria, early on April 7. CREDIT: Syrian government TV, via AP

From his private club in Mar-a-Lago, President Trump on Thursday night approved the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase near Homs believed to be the launchpad for the chemical attack that killed more than 80 civilians earlier in the week. He approved the unilateral military strike without seeking congressional approval.

During a media briefing, Trump linked his decision to launch a strike to a chemical attack, saying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children… Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered at this very barbaric attack.” But the strike Trump approved also reportedly killed a number of children.

Trump’s decision to launch the first American military attack on the Assad regime was applauded by some in Syria. But it also represented a major reversal of his position on Syria during the Obama administration, which was that the United States shouldn’t get militarily involved there.

Though the strike was intended to degrade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s capability to carry out another chemical attack in the future, it appears to have been largely symbolic. During a gaggle with reporters, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster acknowledged that after the strike, “the regime will maintain the certain capacity to commit mass murder with chemical weapons, we think, beyond this particular airfield.”

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“But it was aimed at this particular airfield for a reason, because we could trace this murderous attack back to that facility,” McMaster added. “And this was not a small strike. I mean, it was not a small strike.”

In recent years, Russia has emerged as a key ally of the Assad regime, which has been fighting a civil war for about six years. Russian troops are on the ground alongside Assad’s forces in Syria, and news of the missile strike raised concerns the incident could become a flashpoint between the U.S. and Russia.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that “no contacts were made with Moscow with President Putin” before the strike, but McMaster confirmed that Russian military officials were notified through “military de-confliction agreements in place with the Russian military.”

McMaster said measures were taken to try and ensure no Russians or Iranians were killed in the strikes.

“[T]here was an effort to minimize — to minimize risk to third-country nationals at that airport — I think you read Russians from that — but that — and we took great pains to try to avoid that,” he said. “Of course, in any kind of military operation, there are no guarantees. And then there were also measures put in place to avoid hitting what we believe is a storage of sarin gas, so that that would not be ignited and cause a hazard to civilians or anyone else.”

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It also appears Syrian officials might have had an inkling strikes were coming. ABC reported that Syrian military officials began “evacuating personnel and moving equipment ahead of the strike.”

The Kremlin nonetheless denounced the attack as a “violation of international law.” Russian President Vladimir Putin characterized it as an “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law under a far-fetched pretext.”

“Washington’s move substantially damages Russian-U.S. relations, which are already in a deplorable state,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said. “Most importantly, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin believes that this step does not bring us closer to the ultimate goal in the fight against international terrorism. On the contrary, it creates serious obstacles to efforts to forge an international coalition to fight against it and effectively counter this global evil.”

The Moscow Times reported that Russia’s Foreign Ministry suspended “the memorandum signed by Russia and the United States to ensure the safety of each country’s aircraft during Syrian operations.” And the Russian military signaled it will continue to support the Assad regime.

European leaders were supportive of Trump’s move, however, with French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying in a joint statement that “France and Germany will continue their efforts along with their partners throughout the United Nations framework in order to punish in the most appropriate way the criminal acts related to the use of chemical weapons, that are prohibited by all treaties.”

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Trump’s campaign is currently under FBI investigation for possible collusion with Russian officials. Though Trump signaled a willingness to roll back U.S. sanctions on Russia shortly before he took office in January, his decision to strike one of Putin’s key allies appears to complicate his stated goal of easing tensions with the country.

Despite the empathy he expressed for Syria’s “beautiful little babies” in the wake of the chemical attack, Trump supports a travel ban that would temporarily prohibit Syrian nationals, including refugees, from entering the United States. Last month, a Hawaii judge ordered a temporary restraining order on the second executive order Trump signed in an effort to implement that ban.