10 April 2017

The Trump administration quickly declared its view – almost certainly correct – that the Syrian air force was responsible for the chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria early last week. While emphatically reserving its own position on responsibility pending a ‘full investigation’, the Russian government – the chief backer of President Assad’s Syrian regime – roundly condemned the use of chemical weapons and significantly added that its support for President Assad was ‘not unconditional.’ This statement, issued by President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, clearly suggested that a deft diplomatic response by Washington could exploit this juncture to produce the long-awaited breakthrough in the on-off negotiations for a political settlement of the catastrophic Syrian civil war. And the prospect of this need not have been diminished – could even have been enhanced – by the subsequent American cruise missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat airbase near Homs, from which the chemical attack is believed to have been launched. It was, after all, only symbolic and the Russians were given advance warning to get their people out of harm’s way – and yet it demonstrated a marked increase in Trump’s willingness to make Syria a high priority.

But what happened next? After a mercifully short and uncharacteristically measured announcement of the cruise missile strike by President Trump at Mar-a-Lago, in which there was no mention of Russia at all, America’s ‘top diplomat’, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, went out of his way to anger the Russians. In a prepared statement, he declared publicly that the atrocity at Khan Sheikhoun was only possible because the Kremlin was either ‘complicit’ with its Syrian client or – by virtue of failing to ensure that it complied fully with the 2013 agreement to dispense with its chemical weapons – ‘simply incompetent’. Either could be true, but since the Trump administration has itself become a by-word for across-the-board incompetence, the latter charge was probably all the more galling for being a spectacular case of the pot calling the kettle black. Evidently stung by these remarks as well as in some measure humiliated by the casual slap administered to its client, Russia’s public reaction was predictable, and we seem now to be back to the conduct of Washington-Moscow relations by the dangerous ‘megaphone diplomacy’ of the early 1980s. Tillerson, who – following a meeting of the G7 today – is scheduled to travel to Moscow in the next day or so to present what is being widely described as an ultimatum to President Putin to fall in with Western views on how to settle the Syrian civil war (get rid of Assad and then hope for the best), has simply made matters more difficult for himself. He moderated his public criticism of Russia only slightly over the weekend.

It is obvious that Russian cooperation will be needed to achieve any Syrian settlement, so why has Tillerson prepared the ground so badly? Why didn’t he just respond to Peskov’s initial statement by saying something like the following, and then shut up? ‘We are already confident in our view that the Assad regime was responsible for this attack and are worried about what it suggests for the strength of the Russian government’s commitment to the 2013 agreement on chemical weapons, and I shall be taking this and other matters up with Mr. Lavrov, whom fortunately I shall be meeting in Moscow next week.’ Among possible reasons for Tillerson’s failure to sugar-coat his response in this sort of way at this crucial moment are the disarray and demoralization of his own department (the State Department), and his reported anxiety to allay suspicions that he is a secret friend of the Kremlin because of close Russian connections forged during his business career. What there would seem to be no doubt about, however, is that he has been speaking in a diplomatically clumsy way because he is a complete diplomatic novice. Let us hope that this does not prove too disastrous in the next few days. At least Tillerson ought to have some valuable items to offer in return for Russia’s cooperation over Syria, among them an easing of sanctions and a return to its seat at the top table of industrialized states, thereby making the G7 once more the G8.

The one good thing to come out of this so far is that British foreign secretary and honorary US deputy-sheriff Boris Johnson has cancelled (or had cancelled by Tillerson) his own long planned and already once-postponed trip to Moscow. Instead, he has gone to the G7 in Italy in order to provide light relief for the serious foreign ministers there assembled while seeking to raise from their ranks a posse against Russia, meanwhile offering entertainment for President Putin with a risible plan for smart sanctions against senior Russian and Syrian military officers should he not submit quietly to diplomatic arrest.