The United States’ April 7 cruise missile attack against a major Syrian airbase sent US-Russian relations into a nosedive. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s April 12 talks in Moscow with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin seemed doomed to fail. But Putin did eventually invite Tillerson for an almost two-hour-long meeting in the Kremlin, after which Tillerson and Lavrov entered a joint news conference and sat side by side. Tillerson was laconic compared to Lavrov, and his answers to reporters seemed much shorter than their questions. No major breakthroughs were announced, but both sides apparently wanted to demonstrate some level of business as usual, to stabilize their relationship, and possibly to reverse the current dangerous tailspin. They announced that Russian and US military forces will resume exchanging so-called “de-confliction” information about each others’ activities in and over Syria, which Moscow severed last week in response to the US missile strike. Special intergovernmental working groups led by special representatives will be established to try to disentangle and repair bilateral relations (TASS, April 12, Kommersant, April 13).
Russian foreign policy experts expected an open confrontation and a possible exchange of insults during Tillerson’s visit. But they were gratified by the apparent demonstrated desire of both sides to seek common ground. The visit was hailed as a success, at least in comparison with previous dismal expectations. The US Secretary of State is being praised for being “constructive” and avoiding following the lead of “anti-Russian hawks in Washington” (Mk.ru, April 12). According to Lavrov, “practical measures to form the mechanism of dialogue will be established, though results will not appear soon” (Interfax, April 13). Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov revealed that Putin lectured Tillerson at length, “analyzing” the dismal state of US-Russian relations as well as pointing out what the United States did wrong and what must be done to rectify the situation. Peskov expressed “steadfast hope” that Tillerson will deliver the outline of Putin’s “analysis” directly to President Donald Trump. During the meeting with Tillerson, Peskov noted, there was little talk about the Ukrainian crisis or apparently other problems, like the need to denuclearize Korea. The possible future Putin-Trump summit was not discussed; the conversation revolved predominantly around Syria and what the Kremlin believes must be done there (Interfax, April 13).
The acute US-Russian fracas began on April 4, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces (the Syrian Arab Army or SAA) allegedly carried out a chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held area of Khan Sheikhoun, in Idlib province. Some 89 people, mostly civilians, including many women and children, were reportedly killed, and hundreds more were injured by the attack with what is believed to have been sarin gas. Damascus and Moscow adamantly rejected any involvement or complicity. In 2013, a deadly sarin gas attack by SAA forces killed hundreds in Ghouta—the rebel-held suburb of Damascus. At the time, Russian officials doggedly denied the SAA did anything wrong and claimed the incident was a “provocation by the Syrian opposition.” A United Nations expert report confirming the sarin attack was angrily dismissed as false and one-sided. But to avoid possible US punitive missile and air attacks against SAA installations, Moscow signed, in September 2013, in Geneva, an agreement with Washington to destroy the Syrian chemical arsenal. Damascus was forced to acknowledge it had weaponized chemical agents, which were later destroyed at sea, and delivery systems, which were destroyed inside Syria under international supervision (see EDM, September 19, 2013).
This week, in Moscow, Lavrov dismissed as “baseless accusations” any implication of al-Assad or the SAA’s involvement in the Khan Sheikhoun attack. Lavrov called on Tillerson to support a Russian move to establish a special independent international inquiry, under UN auspices, that would include Western and Russian specialists to investigate the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack. According to Lavrov, Tillerson declined to co-sponsor such an inquiry (Militarynews.ru, April 13). In an interview to state-run MIR TV, Putin insisted the al-Assad regime has fully destroyed its WMD arsenal. Putin proposed that a rogue rebel weapons of mass destruction (WMD) arsenal could have been hit by a conventional SAA aerial bombardment, thus spilling poisonous gas and causing civilian casualties. Or the entire Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack was a deliberate hoax, staged by the rebels to implicate al-Assad, the Russian president suggested (kremlin.ru, April 12).
The Khan Sheikhoun attack seems to indicate some fraction of Syria’s WMD potential is still operational. Moscow’s theories implying the opposite do not carry much weight. On April 7, US destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the SAA’s large Shayrat airbase, in Homs province, from which the WMD attack on Khan Sheikhoun was allegedly launched. Shayrat is also used by the Russian air force for jet refueling and to base helicopters. SAA jets, installations and stockpiles were hit, but there were no Russian casualties. The Russian reaction was furious: Moscow accused the US of aggression under “the pretext of farfetched accusations.” The main Russian fear seems to be that the US Tomahawk missile attack on Shayrat airbase may be the beginning of a sustained US air campaign to weaken and eventually undermine the al-Assad regime under the pretext of combating WMD. A serious reversal or collapse of al-Assad’s forces is seen in Moscow as unacceptable—a strategic defeat in the Middle East and a humiliation for Putin.
Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy, the chief of the Operational Main Directorate of the General Staff told journalists this week, “According to our information, the rebels are deploying additional chemical weapons to Khan Sheikhoun, Eastern Ghouta and other parts of Syria to provoke additional US attacks.” Rudskoy warned the US, “Such attacks are unacceptable” (Militarynews.ru, April 11). On April 13, Damascus accused the US-led coalition of bombing Islamic State positions near the eastern Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor and hitting a rebel WMD dump that resulted in multiple casualties, including civilians. The Pentagon dismissed the charge as absolutely false, while the Russian military says it will investigate (Militarynews.ru, April 13).
Tillerson apparently convinced the Kremlin the attack on Shayrat airbase was a one-time event, and Moscow agreed to resume the exchange of “de-confliction” information. Its severing by the Russian side after the Shayrat attack increased the possibility of accidental US-Russian military clashes, which presumably no one wants in Moscow or Washington—but al-Assad may have other objectives. The Khan Sheikhoun attack could, indeed, have been a deadly provocation by an embattled ruthless regime to prevent any possible US-Russian deals, thus guaranteeing al-Assad unyielding Kremlin backing for the foreseeable future.