National Security

Trump Is Sending Tillerson To Moscow With A Surprisingly Strong Hand

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will head to Moscow this week to negotiate with the Russians, and his words will be backed up by the proven power of the U.S. military.

The Syrian regime, a close Russian ally, reportedly carried out a brutal chemical weapons attack on a hospital Tuesday, murdering innocent women and children. Former President Barack Obama drew a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used sarin on civilians in 2013, he backed down, settling for an agreement that failed to eliminate the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles — despite the administration’s claims to have done so. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer partially attributed Tuesday’s atrocity to the Obama administration’s “weakness and irresolution.”

President Donald Trump ordered cruise missile strikes Thursday against al-Shayrat airfield, the air base from which Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack was launched, upholding Obama’s “red line” years later and demonstrating that a U.S. threat of military force has meaning. Thursday’s demonstration of American power restores American credibility, which was damaged by the previous administration’s inaction. Tillerson will be able to enter into negotiations with Moscow with leverage.

“The timing of Tillerson’s visit is good because he can … go to the Russians with a stronger hand and explain to them what our objectives are in the Middle East,” Evelyn Farkas, who served as the Pentagon’s top Russia official under Obama, told Politico. The strikes on Syria have improved the U.S. position, forcing Russia to re-evaluate its view of the U.S.-Russia relationship.

“The United States is the superpower, and not the other way around, and it’s unlikely that Russia will provoke a military confrontation with a superior military force—assuming it knows U.S. threats of military force are credible, which it presumably now knows,” argues Shadi Hamid, the contributing editor for the Atlantic.

The new administration has demonstrated that it is willing to stand up to Russia, as it put the blame for the attack as much on Russia as it did on the Syrian regime.

“The U.S. and the Russian Government entered into agreements whereby Russia would locate these weapons, they would secure the weapons, they would destroy the weapons, and that they would act as the guarantor that these weapons would no longer be present in Syria,” Tillerson said Thursday. “Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on that commitment from 2013. Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement,” he added.

Moscow received no prior warning before Trump unleashed thousands of pounds of ordnance on Syria, according to Tillerson, and Russia is demanding an explanation for Trump’s stunning decision. “Let him come (to Moscow) and tell what strange things they did,” a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Friday.

Under Obama, the U.S. pursued a path of preemptive de-escalation, giving Russia the advantage. Russia has to consider its moves more carefully now that Trump has demonstrated he will act when necessary. The Russians may have previously assumed that the new administration would be pliant, but it is unlikely that they are thinking that now. That leverage will give Tillerson an advantage on talks in Moscow, where Assad’s fate and the future of Syria are likely to be discussed.

“The Russians really need to think carefully about their continued support of the Assad regime,” Tillerson told reporters before the strikes on Syria.

Trump’s strike on Syria was a reminder to state leaders the around the world, from China to Russia to North Korea, that “the U.S. is still the world’s preeminent power,” according to Paul Haenle, a seasoned diplomat who served former Presidents George W. Bush and Obama as an adviser.

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