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The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter fires a Tomahawk land attack missile on April 7, 2017, in the Mediterranean Sea. (U.S. Navy/Getty Images)
The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter fires a Tomahawk land attack missile on April 7, 2017, in the Mediterranean Sea. (U.S. Navy/Getty Images)

u.s. politics

Why Trump's air strike on Syria could deal a major blow to U.S.-Russia relations Add to ...

The Russian parliament famously broke into applause as news came through in November that Donald Trump had won the U.S. presidential election. Many in Moscow believed there was finally a President of the United States who saw international affairs the same way the Kremlin did.

But Moscow’s enthusiasm for President Trump was among the casualties on Thursday when 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles slammed into the Shayrat air base in Syria, the suspected launching point for Tuesday’s appalling chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed more than 80 people.

If Russia played a hand in getting Mr. Trump elected, as the President’s domestic opponents allege, and the FBI is investigating, the Kremlin is getting a poor return on its investment thus far.

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Some Russian officials were always skeptical about the possibility of a new relationship with Washington. In private, they worried that Russian and American interests were too far apart on too many issues – from Iran to North Korea to Ukraine – for the obvious mutual admiration between Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to ever develop into a real partnership.

That, and Mr. Trump had a long history of being even less predictable than Russia’s own strongman.

Syria was one front where co-operation between Washington and Moscow did seem possible. Mr. Trump’s black-and-white view of the conflict – his stated willingness to work with Russia or even the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if it helped defeat the so-called Islamic State – fit neatly with the Kremlin’s view of the six-year-old war as a conflict between Mr. al-Assad’s secular regime and the “terrorists” arrayed against him, with all Syria’s myriad rebel factions portrayed as having links to either the Islamic State or al-Qaeda.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said just last week that the United States was no longer pursuing a policy of regime change in Syria and that Mr. al-Assad’s fate would be “decided by the Syrian people.” It was jarring for Syria-watchers to hear the top U.S. diplomat – albeit one who had received Russia’s Order of Friendship while working as the chief executive of oil giant ExxonMobil – parroting a line the Kremlin had been pushing for years.

Then came the unexpected, and strategically unnecessary, chemical-weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun, which was followed by the rapid spread of video evidence showing children and what Mr. Trump called “beautiful babies” gasping their last breaths after being exposed to sarin gas.

Mr. Trump was one of the louder voices who warned predecessor Barack Obama against intervening in Syria in 2013, when Mr. al-Assad’s forces were accused of a much larger chemical-weapons attack near Damascus. But Mr. Trump was evidently moved enough by the images of this week’s atrocity to stage one of the more dramatic political about-faces in history.

Eight days after Mr. Tillerson’s declaration that Mr. al-Assad could stay, both he and Mr. Trump were suddenly talking about regime change, and acting swiftly to restore red lines to a conflict that has killed more than 400,000 people since it began.

Mr. Trump’s reversal was a strategic blow to Russia, which until Thursday looked on course to securing the war aim it has pursued since entering the conflict in 2015: returning Mr. al-Assad to unquestioned power in Syria. Left unclear was whether the U.S. strike was a one-off measure, meant to punish Mr. al-Assad while letting Mr. Trump look tougher than Mr. Obama did when he faced the same dilemma, or whether the United States now intends to open a wider confrontation with the Syrian regime and its allies in Moscow.

The applause for Mr. Trump was already fading in Russia before Thursday’s attack. The Kremlin was dismayed in February when Mr. Trump fired Michael Flynn, a retired U.S. general with ties to Moscow, from his post of national security adviser. Three days later, Russian media were told by the Kremlin to tone down their fawning coverage of the new U.S. President.

Caught uncharacteristically flat-footed by Thursday’s attack, the Kremlin spent Friday protesting as loud as it could without shutting the door on the hoped-for détente with Mr. Trump’s White House.

Russia declared Friday that it was suspending a memorandum under which it had exchanged information with NATO about flight routes over Syria, a deal that has helped avoid accidents and confrontations between warplanes operating in the increasingly crowded skies. The hotline established under that pact was used by the United States to warn Russian military personnel away from Shayrat air base on Thursday, so that no Russian soldiers were killed in the strike.

Despite the warning – and Moscow’s expressions of anger afterward – it’s notable that the sophisticated air defence systems Russia has deployed in Syria were not used to defend Shayrat against the cruise missile volley.

A Kremlin statement on Friday was similarly nuanced. It repeated the Syrian regime’s claim that it no longer had any chemical weapons and that it was “terrorists” who were responsible for the atrocity in Khan Sheikhoun. The Kremlin also said the U.S. strike was based on “a complete disregard for factual information” and “dealt a serious blow to Russian-U.S. relations, which are already in a poor state.”

But the statement lacked the vitriol Mr. Putin frequently aimed at the Obama administration. It also included a reference to Mr. Trump’s campaign-time talk about building “an international counterterrorist coalition” involving both Russia and the United States.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, meanwhile, said the attack on Shayrat was more proof that the “Washington establishment” had pushed the President to break his campaign promise to seek better relations with Russia. It came across as something of a plea for Mr. Trump to remember his previous affection for both Russia and “alternative facts” around incidents such as the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun.

With Mr. Tillerson headed to Moscow next week on his first visit to Russia since coming to office, the Kremlin appears to hold out hope that the President it cheered for can be coaxed into reversing course yet again.

With Mr. Trump, it’s clear that anything is possible.

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Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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