The morning right before President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. Navy to bomb the al Shayrat air base on April 6, his one-time rival Hillary Clinton called for precisely the same policy in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons in Iblid.
“I really believe we should have and still should take out his airfields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them,” said Clinton at the Women in the World summit in New York City the same day the attack was ordered.
Assuming that the chemical attack in Iblid — or something like it — was always going to happen, then perhaps the current path of escalation we now find ourselves on was unavoidable. Trump responded roughly the same way Clinton would have responded.
And Russia and Iran have responded, issuing a joint statement blasting the U.S. action, reading, “What America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines. From now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well.”
Since then, further air strikes have originated from the al Shayrat air base but no reports of further chemical attacks thus far. And no further U.S. strikes have occurred.
For the moment, then, the stage has been set for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is due in Moscow on April 12 to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a time when escalation has paused — if only briefly — as tensions remain incredibly high between the two nuclear-armed powers.
On April 9, Tillerson appeared on ABC with George Stephanopoulos offering what appeared to be an overture to deescalate, responding to the question of military action to initiate regime change of Syrian President Basha al-Assad: “we’ve seen what that looks like when you undertake a violent regime change in Libya and the situation in Libya continues to be very chaotic and I would argue that the life of the Libyan people has — is not all that well off today, so I think we have to learn the lessons of the past and learn the lessons of what went wrong in Libya when you choose that pathway of regime change. So we know this is going to be hard work, but we think it’s also a process that will lead to a durable and lasting stability inside of Syria. Any time you go in and have a violent change at the top, it is very difficult to create the conditions for stability longer term.”
Tillerson added, “the president was very clear in his message to the American people that this strike was related solely to the most recent horrific use of chemical weapons against women, children, and as the president said, even small babies, so the strike was a message to Bashar al-Assad that your multiple violations of your agreements at the UN, your agreements under the chemical weapons charter back in 2013 that those would not go without a response in the future and we are asking Russia to fulfill its commitment and we’re asking and calling on Bashar al-Assad to cease the use of these weapons. Other than that, there is no change to our military posture.”
Here, Tillerson appeared to be ruling out a military option for regime change.
But other options, including using diplomatic means, may yet be on the table to push Assad out. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s appearance on CNN the same day where she called for regime change against Assad, saying, “So there’s multiple priorities… getting Assad out is not the only priority. And so what we’re trying to do is obviously defeat ISIS. Secondly, we don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there. Thirdly, get the Iranian influence out, and then, finally, move towards a political solution, because at the end of the day, this is a complicated situation.”
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster appeared on Fox News Sunday, throwing cold water on the idea of using military action to pursue regime change but to apply diplomatic pressure on Russia, “It’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime… Now, we are not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect that change. What we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions. Russia should ask themselves , ‘Why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population?’”
All this figures heavily into Tillerson’s meetings in Moscow as the U.S. applies that diplomatic pressure to Russia to push for Assad’s removal.
In that context, then, it appears useful to look at what sort of deal might be struck between the U.S. and Russia, if any.
So far, Russia has denied Syria was responsible for the chemical attack, instead blaming insurgents for having the chemical weapons.
But it is possible that the U.S. and Russia could agree to put the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) back on the ground in Idlib to ascertain what happened in the attack and at the al Shayrat air base, where the Syrian chemical weapons were supposed to stored for delivery by the aircraft.
All this would be in keeping with the 2013 U.S.-Russian agreement in which the OPCW is supposed to take the lead in disarming Syria’s chemical stockpiles. In 2015, the OPCW had declared 98 percent of Syria’s declared stockpiles had been destroyed.
Here Tillerson and his Russian counterparts can reaffirm their commitments to the 2013 agreement, in this case by putting the inspectors on the ground in Idlib and al Shayrat to get all of the information needed to figure out everything there is to know about the chemical attack, leaving no doubts for the world as to the facts, which are now in dispute by both sides.
Really, there’s nothing to oppose by the OPCW getting involved, since that group is already leading an investigation: “The OPCW Technical Secretariat has initiated contact with the Syrian authorities. It has also requested that all States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, in a position to do so, share any information they may have regarding the allegations of chemical weapons use in the Khan Sheikhun area of Idlib province in the Syrian Arab Republic.”
Here, the U.S. and Russia would just be affirming their support for OPCW’s continuing investigation. Let the facts lead where they may. If evidence is useful to make the case against the Assad regime, then get the evidence, and use the already agreed upon framework via OPCW to take the lead in the investigation, which has not had a problem in leading efforts to disarm chemical weapons stocks held by the government there.
If the goal is to persuade Moscow to reduce support for Assad, then the U.S. presenting its evidence of the attack to the OPCW and at the Moscow meeting could be helpful in that regard. Show the smoking gun and Russia won’t be able to deny it, and the Assad regime will be indefensible.
Elsewhere, Tillerson might choose to focus on the prospects of joint U.S.-Russian cooperation in eliminating Islamic State strongholds in Syria like Raqqa, where U.S. forces are already positioned, and something Trump had campaigned on. This being a shared interest of both the U.S. and Russia, achieving even a token of cooperation on destroying Islamic State in Syria could help to significantly reduce tensions.
After insurgent armies like Islamic State are removed from power, then there can also be a commitment to helping Syria rebuild from the civil war — which would simultaneously solve the refugee crisis.
Also bound to come up in the talks in Moscow will be Ukraine, which has been engaged in a civil war since 2014 following the removal of Viktor Yanukovych from power and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Ukraine looms large since it is easy to countenance scenarios where, for example, the U.S. were to militarily pursue regime change in Syria and so Russia moved on another target, say, Ukraine in a tit tat dramatic escalation of that theater.
Therefore, deescalating tensions over Ukraine would be a welcome development. That could emerge from the meeting if, for example, the U.S. and Russia were to join in calling for a ceasefire there and affirming the commitments that were made via the Minsk accords in 2014 and again in 2015. Mind you, these were terms that both Ukraine and Russia had already agreed to.
This would establish that neither the U.S. nor Russia support the civil war there, which as a first step could become the basis for renewed peace talks between both sides of the conflict. Set a goal. Further steps could come later, including removing arms from conflict areas and instituting political reforms as a result of the talks. But first, establish a mutual desire to end the conflict.
Bigger ticket items include ongoing U.S.-Russia treaties such as the Strategic Arms Reduction agreements on nuclear weapons. Even some statement coming out of Moscow affirming commitments to current nuclear agreements could be useful to diffuse the situation in the other theaters.
Also certain to come up is Russia’s alleged interference with the U.S. elections, which makes the situation even more complicated. Tillerson himself should be well aware of how outrageous charges have been made in the current U.S. political climate, himself having been the target of such unfounded insinuations of being some sort of Russian agent. It is possible raising the hacking charges at the meeting could make it harder to proceed to the other, more important security questions currently on the table. If so, it might be useful to simply note that there is an ongoing U.S. investigation into the allegations and leave it at that.
It might not be possible to settle the issues of Assad and Crimea right away with Moscow. One assumes a goal of the meeting, which was planned before the April 4 chemical attack in Idlib, in addition to addressing Syria and Ukraine, was to find areas for potential cooperation between the U.S. and Russia.
Diplomacy is an art, and Tillerson’s number one goal first and foremost should be to reduce tensions between the two nuclear powers, U.S. and Russia. Finding things to cooperate with Russia on in both the Syria and Ukraine theaters can help to achieve that end, but commitments need to be achievable and have verifiable goals that can chart progress along the way and at the same time be politically plausible for domestic consumption.
Both sides should be able to come away from the meeting in Moscow, and future meetings, with a way to justify deescalating tensions without appearing to be weak.
The key is that we don’t need to agree on everything. The reason for carrying on relations in this case is not out of shared interests per se, but mutual survival. The world is safer when the two top nuclear powers, U.S. and Russia, have something to work on together.
The current military involvement of the U.S. in Syria might have been unavoidable no matter who won the 2016 election, but what happens next has yet to be written. And getting a deal done right now in the current climate may be impossible. But escalation is not inevitable. It is now up to Tillerson to deliver President Trump’s message of peace through strength, and at the same time to keep the dialogue open.
Just keep on talking. Progress can be made later.