U.S. missile strike in Syria dashes hope of improving ties with Russia

With President Trump’s decision to launch punishing missile strikes against Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s forces, the White House has angered Russia and probably dashed any hopes of improving ties with Moscow in the short term.

Russia says it will suspend, starting Saturday, a communications hotline intended to help U.S. and Russian warplanes avoid collisions over Syria, and called the Pentagon’s pounding of a Syrian airfield with 59 cruise missiles an “aggression” that broke international law.

“This step by Washington is causing significant damage to Russian-American relations, which already are in deplorable shape,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday in Moscow. He added that the United States violated “the norms of international law, under a far-fetched pretext.”


Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned ominously that Trump’s attack places the U.S. “on the verge of military clashes with Russia,” presumably in the crowded battle space of Syria, where the multi-sided war is in its seventh year.

“That’s it. The leftovers of the pre-election haze are blown away,” Medvedev wrote on Facebook. “Instead of the much-publicized idea about joint fight against the arch-enemy, [Islamic State], the Trump administration proved that it would fiercely fight against the legal government of Syria.”

The U.S. anti-Russian rhetoric was just as harsh.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who will make his first official trip to Moscow next week, was blistering in his condemnation of Russian military support for Assad and what he said was Moscow’s failure to stop Syria from using poison gas.

“Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent,” Tillerson said Thursday night.

Syria agreed to get rid of its chemical weapons under a 2013 accord enforced by a United Nations agency. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said Friday that Russia either allowed Syria to keep banned chemical agents or was being “played for fools” by Assad.

“The world is waiting for Russia to act responsibly,” Haley told an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council.

As a candidate, Trump repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and called for improving ties with Moscow. But with his administration ensnared in a Congressional and FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump has said little about Putin since taking office — and done nothing to thaw long-chilled relations with Moscow.

According to the Pentagon, U.S. military officials — apparently using the hotline that Russia now wants to close — warned their Russian counterparts in Syria before the missiles were launched at the Shayrat airbase, northeast of Damascus.

An encampment of Russian military helicopters, troops and other facilities at the north end of the sprawling desert base was deliberately not targeted, Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman said Friday.

The Pentagon said it also avoided bombing a suspected chemical weapons stockpile at Shayrat because they didn’t want to accidentally spread a toxic cloud. However, intelligence officers acknowledged they don’t know for certain how much, or even if, nerve agent was located there.

A salvo of 59 Tomahawk missiles, launched from two U.S. destroyers in the Mediterranean, destroyed 20 Syrian aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, fuel storage, ammunition supply bunkers, and advanced Russian-made radars and surface-to-air missile systems, the Pentagon said.

The strike was not intended to wipe out Assad’s air force, but rather to debilitate the Shayrat airfield and deliver a message that the international community will not accept chemical attacks against civilians, U.S. officials said.

For its part, Moscow backed Assad’s claim that a Syrian airstrike hit a rebel cache of nerve gas on April 4, killing dozens of people, strenuously denying U.S. claims that a Syrian government aircraft dropped the lethal chemical agent.

U.S. officials said they were investigating if a Russian warplane had dropped the bomb. But several diplomats said Moscow was angry at Assad for launching an operation that could only invite international outrage, at a time when Assad’s Russian-backed forces were winning the war.

Some of Moscow’s furious reaction may be aimed at a domestic audience in Russia, rather than signaling a worsening of ties with Washington. Just how far-reaching Russian anger goes will depend largely on Trump’s next steps.

If the U.S. missile strike was a one-time operation, the Kremlin may conclude it was a small price to pay for its continued support for Assad, analysts say.

But if Washington escalates its involvement and targets any of Assad’s other half-dozen or so airfields or its war planes, storage depots, palaces or other major facilities, then further estrangement seems likely.

Tillerson said the administration continues to regard the fight against Islamic State the U.S. priority, not the Assad government.

Tillerson is scheduled to meet with his Russia counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, while in Moscow.

Despite the new tension in ties, he could attempt to use the air strike as leverage with the Putin government, a show of strength to try to persuade Moscow to rein in Assad and work toward a political solution in Syria.

Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and NATO, and now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Center think tank, said Russia was surprised by the retaliatory strikes but will not seek to escalate tensions further.

“While they will be very harsh in their rhetoric, and they will continue to deny justification [for U.S. retaliation], they will probably just try to draw a line around this incident,” he said. “They are not giving up on working with this administration.”

“Trump went and committed the Mother of All No-Nos in Putin’s book: unilateral, non-U.N.-approved military action; and he did it in Putin’s new Middle East backyard,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia risk-assessment organization. “But the Russians don’t want a war, and they don’t want a permanent rupture with the U.S.”

Times staff writer Wilkinson reported from Washington and special correspondent Mirovalev reported from Moscow. Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan contributed from Washington.

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter


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4:30 p.m.: Story updated to correct spelling of Shayrat airbase in Syria.