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Did Putin Get the Message?
Russia's president Vladimir Putin during a meeting with his envoy to the Volga Federal District, Alexander Yevstifeyev (not in picture) in the Kremlin. (Mikhail Klimentyev\TASS via Getty Images)
(Mikhail Klimentyev\TASS via Getty Images)

Did Putin Get the Message?

Lee Smith

After the Trump administration’s strike on the Shayrat airfield Thursday, lawmakers, analysts, and the press are asking if the White House has a next move. Certainly it was important to signal that the use of chemical weapons is something the United States could not tolerate. As President Trump explained Thursday, it is a “vital national security of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

That is, the Trump administration enforced the redline against the use of chemical weapons that the previous White House ignored. Further, by citing the possible “spread” of those unconventional arms, Trump was alluding to the organization that is the likeliest recipient of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal—Hezbollah, Iran’s praetorian guard in the eastern Mediterranean.

Thus the strike underscored that the Trump administration’s understanding of the Syrian conflict is broader than that of its predecessor. Where the Obama White House limited its focus in the Syrian arena to an anti-ISIS campaign, Trump struck a blow against the Iranian axis. Tehran and its allies are no longer dealing with an American president eager to strike a bargain with them. The new White House has put Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad on notice. However, the 59 tomahawk missiles launched at Shayrat is perhaps best understood as a message to Russia.

The White House acted less than 48 hours after receiving intelligence regarding Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack. The Trump White House knew immediately who was behind the attack and named names—Syrian government forces.

The Russians were putting out a different story. They claimed that Jabhat al-Nusra had a chemical weapons factory in Khan Shaykun and that a strike with attack helicopters created the plume that killed civilians on Tuesday.

“We know from our ability to monitor that this story was false,” a senior administration official told The Weekly Standard. “The aircraft that flew from Shayrat airbase to Khan Shaykun were tracked. Furthermore, no group like Nusra has ever had ever had the ability to make Sarin in Syria. To weaponize Sarin is quite a sophisticated thing. Opposition groups have not shown that they have that ability, but the Assad regime does.”

Presumably, the American government had access to the same intelligence resources when Assad previously used chemical weapons. However, the Obama administration’s standard response was to ignore intelligence regarding the use of Syria’s unconventional arsenal and avoid or downplay attribution of responsibility.

For instance, when Israeli intelligence showed in April 2013 who was responsible for gassing men, women, and children,a Pentagon official contended that “the use of chemical weapons in an environment like Syria is very difficult to confirm.” When Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Washington in May 2013 and brought evidence of the attacks and intelligence regarding who conducted and ordered them, President Obama said that he needed “specific information about what exactly is happening there.”

Thus, there should have been little surprise when Obama decided not to strike Assad regime targets in September 2013 to enforce the American redline against the use of chemical weapons. Obama had shown repeatedly that he resisted blaming Assad for deploying chemical weapons—punishing him for it was almost unimaginable.

However, Obama’s failure to act is not because of what Trump White House officials like Sean Spicer are calling his “weakness.” No, the previous president brushed aside intelligence and then walked back military force because he believed that an attack on Assad was likely to crash his signature foreign policy initiative, the nuclear agreement with Iran.

The Iran deal shaped both Syria policy (an anti-ISIS campaign predicated on leaving Assad untouched) and the Obama administration’s larger Middle East strategy, a realignment with Iran. Obama downgraded traditional allies like Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and NATO member Turkey, while upgrading the Iranians, and opening wide a window of opportunity for Russia, grateful to once again be a player in the Middle East, after a forty-year absence.

Thursday’s operation should be seen as part of a broader effort to rebalance America’s regional interests in opposition to the Iranian axis and Russia.

The tomahawk strikes were the big news of the week, overshadowing the fact that the new White House welcomed the leaders of two traditional American regional allies—Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and King Abdullah of Jordan. Sisi was treated as a leper by the Obama administration, and Abdullah sidelined. If the Jordanian king was concerned about the presence of Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia on his border, the Obama White House told him to take his concerns to Moscow, where Sisi also visited hat in hand. They had no choice—the Obama administration was not interested in protecting the regional security architecture the United States had built over 70 years.

Other American regional allies who were compelled to bow and scrape before Russian president Vladimir Putin included Erdogan and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since Trump was elected, Israeli officials have spent long hours with the transition team and then the administration explaining the nature of their relationship with Russia. There is no relationship, except for a “deconfliction mechanism” that keeps the two from shooting each other’s planes out of the sky—a mechanism that is otherwise clearly flawed, or else Netanyahu wouldn’t have to keep going back to Russia to remind Putin of Israel’s redlines in Syria. But with Obama, the Israelis had no choice—regional realignment put Russia on Israel’s border and made Moscow the go-to address for Middle Eastern political figures.

Israel, as well as Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others were paying close attention to the strikes on the Syrian airfield. Yes, the Trump White House punished Assad for using chemical weapons. But insofar as the Syrian regime would have fallen had Putin not escalated support in September 2015, Assad is little more than a mannequin in a Moscow shop window. The White House punched a hole in the vitrine.

Many commentators complained that the administration warned the Russians of the attacks beforehand. The salient fact is that the warning was publicized in order to underscore Russian complicity. “The targeting,” as the senior administration official explained to the Weekly Standard, “was done in such a way to minimize any Russian casualties.” The point made by the Trump White House is simply this: The Russians were there, they know what’s happening, and they’re fabricating lies to exculpate not only Assad, but themselves.

It was a strange week for Putin. It started well, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley asserting that the United States was resigned to the fact that Putin’s ally Assad wasn’t going anywhere. In short, they meant to carry on with Obama administration policy, as once explained by John Kerry: the U.S. is not seeking regime change in Syria. Then Putin’s week ended with Russian troops rushing to their bunkers to avoid American missiles hitting a Syrian airfield.

Putin must feel like he was misled. At the very least, he misjudged the new administration. He knew Trump wasn’t the same as Obama, but he took the new president at his word: he respected Putin and wanted to find a way to work with him to kill terrorists—i.e., like Obama he’d focus on targeting Sunnis and thereby help preserve Putin’s, and Iran’s, position in Syria. Now the Russian president has to reassess not only Trump, but his own Syria policy—how much is it worth?

To date, the Russians earned their position in Syria relatively inexpensively, with a few thousand troops, thirty planes, and some advanced weapons systems. But 59 tomahawks launched from two U.S. destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean proved that S-400s are much less formidable weapons when America is determined to show force. Critics who complain about the small scale of Thursday’s operation are missing the point—even with a strike that small, the United States showed how vulnerable Russia is. Indeed, Putin must now be struck by a fact it was easy to forget during the Obama years—in staking out a position in Syria, he has put himself in a place where he is surrounded by American allies.

Trump’s was a solid opening play. The next move is Putin’s.

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