Trump’s Syria Strike Sends Not-So-Subtle Warning to U.S. Rivals

  • After steak dinner with China’s Xi, Trump announces attack
  • Move may rupture any detente Trump has sought with Putin

President Donald Trump’s decision to strike Syria sent a powerful message around the world -- one that could be read very differently in Moscow, Pyongyang and Beijing.

For Russia, it may finally put to rest expectations from the 2016 campaign that Trump will pursue closer ties with President Vladimir Putin, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

For North Korea, it was a warning the U.S. is willing to act unilaterally.

And for China, whose leader Xi Jinping was dining with Trump right before the missiles took flight, the attack was a potent sign of the new American president’s unpredictability.

The U.S. cruise missile strike, in response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack on April 4 that killed more than 70 people, also showed a president who will dramatically shift his policies in response to changing world events. In 2013, Trump slammed his predecessor, Barack Obama, for considering military action against Syria after a poison gas attack killed more than 1,000 people near Damascus, tweeting “Do NOT attack Syria,fix U.S.A..”

“This gets us back on the track to restoring American credibility,” Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview. “That’s why this is more than about just Syria. It’s about nonproliferation. It’s about a lot of things.”

Putin on Notice

One of them is putting Putin on notice that the U.S. will no longer tolerate his close ties to Assad. Russia has sent troops and weapons to Syria to aid Assad’s battle against rebels seeking his ouster.

In a sign of how little trust there is between the U.S. and Russia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. didn’t consult with Moscow before the strikes. Instead, it used an established military “deconfliction” channel to inform Russia that an attack would soon be under way.

“There were no discussions or prior contacts, nor have there been any since the attack, with Moscow,” Tillerson told reporters Thursday night in Florida.

Tillerson, who’s due to meet with Putin in Moscow next week, left no doubt about the administration’s view of the Russian president’s relationship with Assad. The secretary said Russia bore some responsibility for Syria’s use of chemical weapons, calling Moscow either “complicit’’ or ‘incompetent.’’

Russia on Friday denounced the U.S. attack with equally stern language. Putin “regards the strikes as aggression against a sovereign nation,” his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to Interfax, noting that the Russian leader believes the strikes were carried out “in violation of international law, and also under an invented pretext.”

North Korea

Alongside the overt message to Russia lay an implicit warning to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un that the U.S. was closely watching his regime’s pursuit of nuclear missiles. It reinforced Trump’s remark to the Financial Times in an interview published April 2 that his administration could act on its own to stop North Korea from developing a nuclear weapon if China doesn’t do more.

After two decades of failing to rein in Pyongyang’s weapons program, the U.S. is concerned that Kim’s regime is attempting to build a missile that could deliver a nuclear weapon to North America. Kim has launched dozens of projectiles and conducted three nuclear tests since he came to power after his father’s death in 2011. In January, he claimed to be in the final stages of preparations to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile.

China has backed North Korea since a war on the peninsula in the 1950s, in part to prevent having a U.S. ally on its border. While Beijing’s leaders have enforced some United Nations-backed sanctions on North Korea after a series of nuclear and ballistic missile tests, China accounts for more than 90 percent of its total trade.

New Approach

Trump’s attack on Syria is a not-so-subtle way of telling Beijing that it must adopt a new approach to Kim’s regime.

“Many Chinese strategic thinkers do believe that the U.S. may initiate a pre-emptive attack against North Korea’s nuclear facilities,” said Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “So there is a possibility that the strike may motivate Xi to do more to help the U.S. on this issue. China does tend to think that war is possible in the Korean Peninsula, which is something they want to avoid at all costs.”

Xi’s visit with Trump in Florida was supposed to be an opportunity for the two leaders to build a rapport and work through tough issues, especially trade. Instead, their first meeting was disrupted and overshadowed by the assault on Syria.

After Dinner

The cruise missile strike was launched minutes after Xi finished his dinner at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, as the two leaders looked ahead to a Friday agenda filled with discussions.

It wasn’t just the timing of the attack that put Xi in an awkward spot.

“The Chinese are going to be unhappy with this development because America taking unilateral military action against a country at the moment when the Chinese President is having dinner gives the appearance that China in some way approves of this action,” said Dennis Wilder, a former director for Asian issues on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council.

The Chinese are very much against the idea of ousting Assad and will not want to look complicit, he said.

“Publicly I think Xi will attempt as best he can to ignore this. He will want to continue act as if nothing has gone on and get the public picture he wants out of this,” Wilder said. “I think that the Chinese will be expressing some anger privately to the United States.”

— With assistance by Jennifer Jacobs, Nick Wadhams, Peter Martin, Daniel Ten Kate, and David Tweed

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