Hitting the ground running as Secretary of State, 65-year-old former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson showed why he’s the best man for the job, showing grace-under-pressure managing the Syrian crisis. After hitting Shayrat airfield in Homs, Syria April 7 with 59 Cruise missiles, Tillerson showed the kind of steady hand needed to navigate the U.S. out of current tensions. Responding to an alleged Sarin gas attack April 4 at Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, 70-year-old President Donald Trump responded with what President Ronald Reagan once called “swift-and-effective retribution,” hitting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with Cruise missiles. Denied by Syria and Russia, Trump said there’s plenty of medical evidence of the Sarin gas attack, something banned in 2013 under a strict agreement with the U.S. and Russia, removing thousands of tons of nerve agents from the Syrian government.
When al-Assad gassed rebel strongholds in Ghouta, Syria Aug. 21, 2013, killing 281, injuring 3,600, former President Barack Obama said al-Assad crossed a red line. While Obama didn’t intervene militarily, he did broker a deal with Russia to remove al-Assad’s chemical weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin promised that al-Assad would no longer possess the chemical weapons to carry out such atrocities. When al-Assad struck again with Sarin nerve gas in Khan Sheikhoun, Trump felt inclined to send the Syrian dictator as strong message. Obama’s message in 2013 let al-Assad off-the-hook, paving the way for the recent episode. Russia and Iran responded quickly to Trump’s Tomahawk Cruise missile strike, warning the U.S. than another strike would result in a military response. Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned the U.S. today about more strikes.
Russia and Iran insist that al-Assad did not hit Khan Sheikhoun with Sarin nerve gas, instead blaming it on rebel forces or a stray missile that hit a chemical weapons dump. When Putin and Obama agreed to remove al-Assad’s weapons of mass destruction in 2013, it wasn’t because of rebel-held stockpiles. Emboldened by Trump’s change in Syrian policy, al-Assad’s military advisers went overboard hitting rebel strongholds. Since evicting Saudi-backed rebels from East Aleppo Dec. 23, 2016, al-Assad felt emboldens to land a knockout punch on rebels fleeing to Idlib Povince, thinking the Trump White House was on the same page. While Trump agrees in principle that al-Assad should stay in Damascus, the use of WMD crosses the red line, prompting the April 7 Cruise missile attack. Tillerson now heads to Moscow to defuse a potential time bomb.
Tillerson forcefully responded to Moscow right after the poison gas attack. “Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement,” said Tillerson, putting Moscow on notice that Trump won’t tolerate the use of poison gas. If al-Assad wants to kill more rebels and civilians in Idlib Province, he needs to do it with conventional weapons. Earning widespread praise from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, Trump has been pushed to escalate the six-year-old Saudi-backed proxy war. Tillerson told CBS New “Face the Nation” that there’s been no change in Syrian policy, meaning, the top priority is defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS], not removing al-Assad from power. Dispatched today to go to Moscow, Tillerson carries the message that the White House has no intent of escalating the Syrian War.
Putin condemned the U.S. strike as violating international law, knowing that most U.N. Security Council countries support the action, including the U.S., U.K. France, Germany and possibly China. Once al-Assad crossed the line with poison gas, he lost most NATO countries. When Putin meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, he’ll try to appeal to Moscow’s common sense. Joining forces with Iran or Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia leaves Russia a pariah state on the issue of backing the al-Assad regime. Tillerson doesn’t plan to urge Russia to stop backing Syria but will plot a course to improve U.S.-Russian relations. Trump’s be called a “Putin puppet” by the Hillary campaign and liberal press. Bombing Syria dispelled the illusion about Trump’s close ties with Moscow. Tillerson wants Russia to know the U.S. wants better bilateral relations.
Called the most dangerous Secretary of State in U.S. history by Democrats and the liberal press, Tillerson’s proving himself quickly to be a major asset on the Trump team. Tillerson’s cool-and-collected style is precisely what the U.S. needs to defuse current tensions. With Moscow and Tehran threatening retaliation, Tillerson can flip-the-script very quickly. Reassuring Putin that the U.S. isn’t trying to interfere with his effort to keep al-Assad in power, Russia can begin to reassess its policy of alienating the U.S. and European Union. Putin has a lot more to gain by improving relations with the U.S. and EU. Denying al-Assad’s use of poison gas, Putin hurts his own credibility, knowing that it’s not the first rodeo dealing with chemical weapons. Heading to Moscow with an agenda in mind, Tillerson will work tirelessly to put the U.S. and Moscow back to improve diplomatic relations.