Belligerence aside, Trump still hasn't given up on Russia
The latest belligerent don't-cross-me language and military positioning from both the U.S. and Russia in the wake of the Syria raid are fairly disheartening, given that President Trump ran for the presidency on a platform of improving relations with Russia. The exile of K.T. McFarland, who favored a Kissingerian realpolitik of finding common ground with Russia, from the National Security Council to an ambassadorship in Singapore, didn't help. The cheering of prominent neocons regarding the Syria raid was a bit dispiriting, too. Were we really going back to the same old unending Bush quagmires, with all their gooey sidelines of nation-building on the flawed assumption that Stone-Age slaves are really just Jeffersonian democrats in disguise? When we hear talk from administration officials about "letting the Syrians choose their leaders," how can we not think about all the lovely results that came of that idiocy during the Arab Spring, when dictator-tossing mobs elected far more hideous actors, as in Egypt? When we speak of supporting the Syrian rebels, how can we be sure we aren't bankrolling ISIS and al-Qaeda? With Russia digging in its heels to support its Syrian ally and making common cause with Iran's mullahs, the whole picture looked as though the outlines of the old Cold War power politics, the sour Bush era, and the far worse Obama era were back.
Yet as bad as the picture is, there are some subtle signs that the original plan of finding a way to work with Russia might still be operative.
For one thing, there was the subtle slip, which may not have been so accidental, of White House spokesman Sean Spicer, who suggested that Russia is an ally. Spicer is a professional public relations guy; he knows the importance of word "use." He's also not a Russia-softie. Was that intentional? The left squawked that it was, playing gotcha, but one wonders if it might have been entirely intentional.
Administration officials and allies have said they want Russia to come on over to our side, emphasizing that Russia's ally, Syria's Assad, isn't really a worthy one to stand by.
President Trump is sending Rex Tillerson to Moscow now, and despite unnamed officials leaking a story that Russia knew in advance about the chemical weapons attack, Tillerson is known to be a smooth operator, particularly from a position of strength. It's possible he might just be able to coax Russia to abandon Assad and join the allies, setting the stage for a bad actor to be replaced by a better one. The BBC says the U.S. and U.K. see it as a "window of opportunity." And if it leaves Iran isolated, it means a major blow for the already tottering mullahs.
Russia has said it has legitimate interests in the region (after all, it does have to live near that trouble spot), and it wants those respected. Besides concerns about spillover, it also seeks a warm water port in the Mediterranean, which Syria has provided under treaty terms. Perhaps a reassurance that Russia will not necessarily lose that base if Assad is thrown out may be what it takes to swing Russia over to the U.S. side.
Trump himself has pointed out that he wants not just Americans dictating terms about a new Syria, but allies, too – and he has included Russia. It's significant that this kind of talk is coming from Trump. Trump insiders have repeatedly told us that Trump's views really are the most important indicators of policy.
With an offer like that, it would seem foolhardy for Russia to turn it down – in what, the interest of maintaining gamy allies like Syria and Iran? Depending on how the power struggles go inside the Kremlin (we have seen mixed messages there, too), it might just mean that all is not lost for some kind of new beginning with Russia. If it happens, we can expect to see a multiplication of strengths as a united front forms. That could be the worst news ever for ISIS terrorists – whose war all sides want gone as quickly as possible.