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Strike Fuels Russia Tensions -- WSJ

8 Apr 2017 6:32 am
By Paul Sonne, Felicia Schwartz and Carol E. Lee 

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump's quick-fire decision to strike a Syrian regime air base sent a shot across Russia's bow, signaling that his administration is more willing to use force than its predecessor, even if it means riling the Kremlin and its allies.

For months, officials in the Trump administration have been saying the U.S. must approach Russia from a position of strength, before improving relations with Moscow. When deciding how to respond to this week's chemical-weapons attack, which the U.S. military blamed on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces, the 11-week-old administration also considered what message Mr. Trump wanted to send to the rest of the world in one of his earliest foreign-policy tests.

"This is bigger than Syria," a senior administration official said. "It's representative of how he wants to be seen by other world leaders. It is important that people understand this is a different administration. "

Mr. Trump said he undertook the military strike to prevent and deter Mr. Assad from using chemical weapons. While it appeared to be a one-time action, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned more could be forthcoming .

The unilateral strike represented a relatively modest intervention, U.S. officials said, small enough to avoid an intractable rift with Russia ahead of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's first official trip to Moscow next week. It crippled 20 of Mr. Assad's jet fighters, according to the Pentagon, but didn't target the air base's runway. Local media reported Syrian planes were using the runway later Friday, though U.S. officials didn't confirm that.

The strikes didn't come with any clear new policy doctrine on Syria, which experts say would be required to alter the course of the broader war Mr. Assad is winning thanks to Russia's support.

Still, the symbolic impact of the first direct U.S. strike on Mr. Assad since the beginning of the Syrian conflict has altered the dynamic between U.S. and Russia over Syria. For years Russian President Vladimir Putin was able to take advantage of a strictly limited appetite for risk in Washington -- something the strike shows has now changed.

One immediate result was Moscow's declaration on Friday that it had suspended an agreement to coordinate military flights over Syria with Washington. U.S. officials said lines of communication remained open, but a weakening of such exchanges could heighten the risk of an incident over Syria, where U.S. jet fighters fly regularly in the campaign against Islamic State. The U.S. strikes could also lead to unpredictable reactions by Mr. Assad and his backers, in particular Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

Despite such dangers, allies of Mr. Trump said they hoped the show of resolve marked the beginning of a change in Washington's broader negotiating stance with Moscow.

"Hopefully, this is something that very much changes the type of conversation that will take place between Putin and Tillerson when they meet," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R., Tenn.). Mr. Corker said the operation showed "the kind of pushback" Mr. Putin understands.

It could also complicate Mr. Tillerson's visit, at a moment when hopes for a quick U.S.-Russian rapprochement already had faded.

"There's a question of how well that visit will go," said a senior administration official, who questioned whether Mr. Putin's calculus has changed. "I doubt it, but we'll see. The early Russian response isn't encouraging."

In addition to the Syria conflict, Mr. Tillerson heads to Russia to raise other U.S. concerns, including Russia's intervention in Ukraine, what the U.S. has called a violation of a Cold War-era pact that bans intermediate-range missiles, and Moscow's alleged interference in the 2016 campaign.

Despite the new strains, Moscow still planned to host Mr. Tillerson on his official visit next week. And even as Trump administration officials hit out at Mr. Assad, Russia's longtime ally, the White House said the U.S. still wants to cooperate with Russia.

"I think that there can be a shared commitment to defeat ISIS and also agree that you can't gas your own people," White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. "There is a mutual level of human decency that I think we can expect out of everybody."

Mr. Corker said one question Mr. Tillerson may try to answer in the visit is why the Assad regime had access to these chemical weapons despite a 2013 deal between the U.S. and Russia to remove Mr. Assad's stockpile.

The strikes have raised questions about Mr. Trump's Syria policy and what next steps his administration plans to take. In the course of a few days, the administration went from Mr. Tillerson saying the Syrian people should decide the fate of Mr. Assad -- a line the Kremlin has promoted -- to Mr. Trump suggesting obliquely Mr. Assad should go. Mr. Tillerson said Thursday that Mr. Assad's actions make clear there's "no role for him to govern the Syrian people."

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Friday that additional sanctions on Syria likely were forthcoming, signaling a hardening line that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has also been promoting.

For years, Obama administration officials at the State Department and the Pentagon expressed frustration with White House unwillingness to use greater force in Syria, leaving former Secretary of State John Kerry with little leverage in his negotiations with Russia. Many of them approved of Thursday's decision to strike Mr. Assad.

Russia's avowed cancellation Friday of the military channel between Moscow and Washington is one way the Russians can make any future U.S. unilateral strikes more difficult, said Michael Kofman, a Russian defense expert and research analyst at the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyses

"They want to make sure that we don't have a channel where we can call them and announce we are bombing somewhere in Syria," he said.

Future U.S. actions against Mr. Assad also risk prompting blowback that could jeopardize U.S. troops in the region or raise the cost of involvement for the Trump administration to a degree that makes Washington balk.

Mr. Putin has been able to undertake risky military gambits in places such as Syria and Ukraine in part because he has a lock on domestic politics in Russia, with little criticism or opposition, a luxury the White House doesn't enjoy.

"I think they calculate that if this is a game of chicken, that we'll probably be the first ones to swerve to the side of the road," said Michael Carpenter, the former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia under Mr. Obama. "They calculate that. It remains to be seen if that's the case."

--Alan Cullison contributed to this article.

Write to Paul Sonne at paul.sonne@wsj.com, Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com and Carol E. Lee at carol.lee@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 08, 2017 02:32 ET (06:32 GMT)

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