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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Syria is more important to Russia than to the US

The two superpowers have some bridges to repair, writes Alan Ahilps

Russian president Vladimir Putin.   Dmitri Lovetsky / Pool / AP
Russian president Vladimir Putin. Dmitri Lovetsky / Pool / AP

Since April 6, when the United States launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons, there has been broad agreement in Washington that the US has reached a turning point in its relations with Russia. The problem is that no one can agree on which direction the Trump administration will turn.

For the foreign policy community in Washington, the missile attacks have been received like an injection of steroids. The military muscles, which under the administration of Barack Obama had atrophied, are pumped up again. No matter that the missile strike was more a pinprick than a knockout blow. It is seen as redeeming the original sin of the Obama years, when the then president failed to carry out his promise to attack the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons against the rebels.

Most significantly, there is a feeling that the faction-ridden Trump administration has been taken in hand by the generals that the president has installed in key positions.

The “America First” isolationists in the White House have, according to this narrative, been pushed into a corner.

The other side of the coin is the anguish of the isolationists who fear that Washington may once again be dragged into another war in a part of the world of no strategic interest to the US. It does not take much imagination to see that Russia and America are only a hair’s breadth away from armed conflict over Syria, which had seemed unthinkable under Mr Trump, who has never hidden his ambition to work with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Mr Trump, however, has said: “We’re not going into Syria.”

The White House is now promoting a view that Mr Putin is embarrassed and weakened by Bashar Al Assad’s use of chemical weapons and needs to connect with Washington to extricate himself from his ally.

This narrative of “Putin the loser” has spawned two conflicting options: one, supported most vocally by Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, is to hit Mr Putin while he is supposedly down, and impose more sanctions on the Kremlin.

Mr Johnson failed to persuade the foreign ministers of the G7 nations in Italy this week to back this tough line. Instead, the Italian foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, said that Mr Putin “must not be pushed into a corner”. The logic is that the presumed weakness of Mr Putin should be used to open up a dialogue on bringing the Syrian war to an end.

The effect of this western discord was to weaken the hand of Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, as he headed to Moscow with the proclaimed purpose of getting Mr Putin to ditch his ally.

All this reeks of western wishful thinking. Mr Putin is not punch drunk and reeling on the ropes. He has conducted the most successful foreign policy intervention since Russia emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union.

By contrast, America and its allies have left a trail of failures from Afghanistan to Libya. Like it or not, Russia’s Syrian intervention has changed perceptions of Russia in the region. MrPutin is not about to cut and run. For geographical reasons, the stability of Syria is of far more interest to Russia than it is to America.

In fact, Washington has never had any interest in Syria – it is a poor country with no oil – nor does it have the legacy of American bloodshed which makes Iraq a political issue. No one in Washington is going to fight an election campaign with the slogan, Who lost Syria?

So Mr Putin is going to remain engaged in Syria, and his interest is to help the regime and its Iranian allies finish the war, and in the peace settlement secure Russia’s naval and airbases on Syria’s Mediterranean shore, which will extend the Kremlin’s military reach. Whether Mr Al Assad remains inpower is an open question: the point is that Russia keeps its allies close and protects its gains.

Of course, the weakness of the Syrian army, and its inability to hold the ground it controls let alone retake the rest of the country, is a problem for the Russians. This weakness means it resorts to what strategists coyly call “force multipliers” – use of chemical weapons, including chlorine and allegedly sarin, the bombing of hospitals and the starvation of civilian populations. All these are disgusting tactics, but Mr Putin is relying on his considerable media assets to spread doubt and confusion.

There is much that Washington can offer Mr Putin – an end of sanctions, for example. But the regular US “resets” with Moscow have left a bitter taste in the Kremlin. Russian officials understand that in American eyes, Russia is always a problem to be parked, not the partner that Mr Putin aspires to be.

The reaction in Washington to the missile strikes shows that there is no pro-Putin constituency in Washington. If there is a desire to cosy up the Kremlin it is for a different reason – to try to break the Russia-Iran alliance and reverse the advances that Tehran made in the Obama era.

This is a uniting idea among Mr Trump’s generals.

But it is not attractive for Russia to be offered the role of pawn in a US-Iranian power play.

So what does the turning point amount to? Could it just be a sign of Mr Trump being easily swayed, in this case apparently by his daughter Ivanka? Or was it just a ploy to kill off all the reports of the president being in thrall in some way to Mr Putin?

Ultimately, if the Americans and the Russians are going to work together on Syria, there will have to be many months of hard work on the part of Washington to break down Mr Putin’s wall of distrust. It is not clear that the White House has decided that this is what needs to be done.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter @aphilps