Syria conflict widens rift between US and Russia

Latest operations point to a sharp increase in the US military activity globally.

Low point. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrive for a news conference following their talks in Moscow, on April 12. (Reuters)

2017/04/16 Issue: 102 Page: 1

The Arab Weekly
Ed Blanche

Beirut -The meeting between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 12 signally failed to reduce tensions between Wash­ington and Russia in the messy aftermath of an April 4 chemical weapons attack in Syria and a re­taliatory US missile strike.

The political temperature in the Middle East remains high, particu­larly as the US missile attack on a Syrian airbase on April 7 — the first direct US military intervention in the 6-year-old Syrian war — was followed by other US operations that point to a sharp increase in its military activity globally.

US President Donald Trump dispatched a naval task force off North Korea in advance of report­ed ballistic missile tests and, on April 13, the US Air Force dropped America’s most powerful non-nu­clear bomb on Islamic State targets in Afghanistan, the first time the 9,800kg bomb has been used in combat.

The events are seen as a sharp turn by the Trump administration from its declared policy of “Ameri­ca First” to using the United States’ vast military power to enforce its often stumbling diplomatic ma­noeuvres.

It is a development that could widen the Syrian conflict and deepen the rift with Russia trig­gered by the April 7 missile strike on the forces of Putin’s ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad. One-fifth of Syria’s warplanes, the regime’s main strike arm, were destroyed in the US strike.

The fallout could be significant in the Middle East, already danger­ously riven by the Syrian war, with major powers supporting the vari­ous factions in the conflict.

Hopes that the Moscow meet­ing would reduce tensions between Washington and Moscow, including the United States claiming the Rus­sians knew in advance of the alleged chemical strike, were dashed despite the 2-hour meeting in the Kremlin between Tillerson and Putin.

“We have reached a better un­derstanding with each other af­ter what we have done today and hope contacts will be continued,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Despite his positive spin, ma­jor strategic differences remain, with Moscow clearly determined to stand by Assad, through whom Russia has established military bases in Syria as part of Putin’s drive to restore Moscow’s Cold War power, while Trump now favours removing the Syrian dictator from power to open the way for a peace settlement.

“There is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Till­erson admitted. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers can’t have this kind of relationship.”

Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.

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