With U.S. intel showing that Russians had advance knowledge of the April 6 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Sarin gas attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun, the White House reevaluates its Syrian policy. Heading to Moscow tomorrow for urgent talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, 65-year-old Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has much on his plate defusing potential military confrontation with Russia. Before 70-year-old President Donald Trump took office, Russian President Vladimir Putin had high hopes for improvement in U.S.-Russian relations. Under two terms of former President Barack Obama, U.S.-Russian relations had deteriorated to Cold War lows, especially over Putin’s March 1, 2014 annexation of Crimea and military activities with pro-Russian separatists in breakaway region of Southeastern Ukraine.
When Tillerson meets with Putin, he’s got a lot of fence-mending since the former Exxon-Mobil CEO received Russia’s highest honor for a foreigner, “The Order of Friendship” in 2013. Defending al-Assad since Sept. 30, 2015 against a determined Saudi-U.S.-Turkey funded proxy war to topple his Shiite government, Putin warned the U.S. that any more military action against the Syrian government would be met with force. Trump won widespread praise for his April 7 Tomahawk Cruise Missile attack on the Shayrat airbase, prompting Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani to threaten military retaliation. Trump and his Defense Secretary Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis won’t take the warnings lightly, following President Ronald Reagan’s policy of not being intimidated by any possible adversary. U.N. Amb. Nikki Haley already told the U.N. Security Council more action was possible.
War hawks on Capitol Hill led by Sen. John McCain (R-Az.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have urged Trump after his Cruise missile attack to join Syrian rebels fight against al-Assad. Trump and Tillerson told the press after the attack that there’s been no change in U.S. Syrian policy, suggesting that the White House can live with al-Assad. Meeting with Putin and Lavrov tomorrow, Tillerson must reassure Russia that the U.S. means no harm to Russia but had to respond once al-Assad used poison gas. Tillerson hopes to persuade Putin that he has more to gain improving relations with U.S. and European Union. Putin’s alliance with Iran and Hezbollah puts it with pariah states, not welcomed by the U.S. and EU. Syrian officials have denied that they dropped poison gas bombs, killing 86 in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun.
Russian officials explained the incident as a “false flag operation,” blaming the incident on Syrian opposition groups. Any knowledge of Syria’s military tactics over the last six years knows there’s been numerous chemical weapons attacks, only lending credibility to al-Assad’s actions. Tillerson hasn’t said publicly that Russia was involved on some level with al-Assad’s poison gas attack. With Moscow and Tehran coordinating with al-Assad, it’s hard to believe they didn’t know about the April 6 gas attack. Washington holds Putin responsible for al-Assad’s use of poison gas because he removed 1,300 tons of chemical agents in 2013 after al-Assad killed 281 civilians in Ghouta, Syria. U.S. officials don’t buy Syrian, Russian and Iranian denials of the April 4 poison gas slaughter at Khan Sheikhoun. Putin’s explanation that rebels hit a chemical weapons depot lacks plausible deniability.
Heading to the Kremlin for tense talks, Tillerson hasn’t been accused recently of colluding with Putin, something dogging the Trump White House since Nov. 8, 2016. Since Trump’s Cruise missile strikes, Democrats and the liberal press haven’t accused Trump of Kremlin collusion. Whatever Tillerson discusses with Putin, he’s not likely accused of cutting secret deals to either end the Russian sanctions or find common ground to go forward. Since taking office, the media has relentlessly tied Putin and top Trump campaign officials to the Kremilin. Trump’s April 6 Cruise missile strike dispels the fraudulent media story that the White House has close Kremilin ties. Threatening possible war against the U.S., Putin hardly sounds like he’s got a close relationship with Trump. While watching Tillerson’s every move, the press no longer pounds the alleged Trump-Kremlin ties.
Tillerson’s mission in Moscow must reassure Putin that the White House isn’t trying to sabotage the Kremlin’s goal of keeping al-Assad in power. Telling Putin that the White House can’t ignore the slaughter of innocents with poison gas hopefully clarifies the U.S. position. Threatening military confrontation with the U.S., Putin needs to see the differences between Trump and Obama. With al-Assad winning the war with Russian and Iranian help, no one understands why al-Assad used poison gas. In complete disbelief, Putin only explains the poison gas attack as an accident or false flag operation. Once al-Assad rid East Aleppo of rebel groups Dec. 23, 2016, the only logical explanation was that he could finally purge rebel strongholds in Idlib, Province. When Tillerson meets Putin tomorrow, he needs to emphasize the absolute horror of al-Assad using poison gas against civilians.