By Kate Murphy
It’s getting cold again: A chemical weapons attack, cruise missile strikes and dirty tricks in the U.S. electoral process have put a deep freeze on the possibility of warmer U.S.-Russia relations.
President Trump has said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with Russia?”
Harrowing images from the attack sparked international outrage and a military response from the U.S. On Thursday, President Trump stated, “Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.”
Now Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is calling on Russia, one of Syria’s closest allies, to hold Syrian President Bashar Assad accountable.
During the G-7 meeting in Italy, Tillerson said, “I hope that what the Russian government concludes is that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Bashar al-Assad.”
So why does a dictator like Assad, who was previously implicated by the United Nations of committing war crimes against his own people, still have Russia’s backing?
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on CNN’s “State of the Union,“ “The first reaction from Russia wasn’t, ‘How horrible.’ It was, ‘Assad didn’t do it. Assad didn’t do it.’ Why was that the reaction?”
Russia’s connection to Syria runs deep, stemming from the Cold War era when Syria sided with the Soviets in what would become a regional proxy conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. For their loyalty, Syria was rewarded with Russian military equipment.
In 1971, that relationship was reaffirmed when Syria let the Soviet Union open its sole regional naval base in Tartus under an agreement with President Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, giving the Soviet Union a stable presence in the Middle East, something that remains strategically important to Russia today. In 1980, the two countries signed a 20-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, and that diplomatic relationship continues.
Bashar Assad took office in 2000 when his father passed away. He was popular with the military, but not with a majority of the Syrian people. The Syrian civil war started in 2011, after Syrians took part in the Arab Spring uprisings, and Assad cracked down violently.
Feeling pressure from ISIS and the U.S.-backed Syrian rebels, Assad resorted to a chemical weapons attack, killing more than 1,400 people in 2013.
That led then President Obama to say, “In part because of the credible threat of U.S. military force, there is the possibility of a diplomatic solution. Russia has indicated a new willingness to join with the international community in pushing Syria to give up its chemical weapons.”
Russia helped broker an agreement allowing Assad to stay if chemical weapons were removed. In the meantime, Russia saw an opportunity for a stronger regional foothold, sending warplanes and troops to help Assad fight the rebels, and to some extent ISIS.
Russia has also had Assad’s back in the U.N., repeatedly vetoing any resolutions aimed at knocking him from power.
At the United Nations, Haley cracked down on Russia saying, “Russia has shielded Assad from U.N. sanctions. If Russia has the influence in Syria that it claims to have, we need to see them use it.”
Some view Putin’s actions as a calculated one-two punch, regaining regional power while also showing the world its renewed military might.
The question now is how much of an investment Russia will continue to make in the Assad regime. Publicly, they have sent mixed signals: On the one hand they say their support for Assad is not unconditional, while on the other hand they condemn President Trump’s recent military action and refute the claims made against Assad.
So as the fallout continues between Russia and the U.S. over Syria, at least when it comes to Russia’s relationship with Syria, you can say, now I get it.