G7 sides with Russia: Unexpected setback to the US?

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M. K. Bhadrakumar |

The G7 was meant to be an insipid forum that unfailingly followed the US diktat, but the worm is apparently turning. The G7 foreign ministers meeting yesterday in Lucca failed to fall in line with the British-American proposal to impose more sanctions against Russia over the Syrian crisis. The host country, Italy, upfront disagreed with adopting any hard line toward Russia – “we must not push Russia into a corner”, as foreign minister Angelino Alfano put it.

The zig zag in the US policy toward Syria – blowing hot and cold – is eroding Trump’s credibility in Europe, which is already low.

Interestingly, Germany supported the Italian stance. Equally, the G7 agreed on the importance of an independent inquiry being conducted on the chemical attack in Idlib on April 4 (which had ostensibly triggered the US missile strike).

Read more: The US fires Missiles at Syria in escalation of hostilities

The zig zag in the US policy toward Syria – blowing hot and cold – is eroding Trump’s credibility in Europe, which is already low. The secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had told the ABC on Sunday that ‘regime change’ in Syria is not the priority for the US, but in Lucca, he sang a different tune saying the Assad regime’s days in power are numbered. Tillerson advocated an interventionist approach, saying,

“We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents, anywhere in the world.”
(BBC, Guardian)

Now begins the really challenging part of Tillerson’s itinerary. From Lucca, he flew to Moscow. Just ahead of his touchdown in Moscow airport, President Vladimir Putin made a thinly-veiled allegation that Washington is hatching new plots to strike Syria again. Putin was obviously speaking on the basis of hard intelligence available with the Kremlin. He said,

“We have information from different sources that these provocations – I cannot call them otherwise – are being prepared in other regions of Syria, including in the southern suburbs of Damascus where there are plans to throw some substance and accuse the official Syrian authorities.”

Read more: The US’s top 10 Lies About Syria

Ominously, Putin compared the developing situation with the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003:

“This [the US strike on Syria] strongly reminds of the 2003 events when US representatives in the UN Security Council showed allegedly chemical weapons found in Iraq. After that, a military campaign started in Iraq and it ended with the destruction of the country, the growth of the terrorist threat, and the emergence of the ISIL [the former name of the Islamic State terrorist organization outlawed in Russia] on the international scene, no more and no less. The same is happening now.”

Simultaneously in Moscow, Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi voiced a similar opinion, giving details:

“Militants are delivering toxic chemicals in Khan Shaykhun, the Jira airport, East Ghouta and to the West of Aleppo. The aim of these actions is to forge another pretext for accusing the Syrian government of using chemical weapons and for triggering new US strikes. We warn against such inadmissible steps.”

Read more: Syria: Will Russia kneel in front of Washington?

Where are US-Russian relations headed?

Moscow is apparently weighing the real possibility that Trump might order more strikes in Syria. The Russian Foreign Ministry announced today that towards the end of the week, the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran, and Syria will be meeting in Moscow. The last such meeting was held in October.

The central problem with Trump is his unpredictability. Impulsive behavior and wayward foreign policy have become the hallmark of the Trump administration.

Evidently, Russia is circling the wagons, preparing for an eventuality of cascading tensions in Syria. In the talks with Tillerson, Russia’s prime objective will be to know if the US strike in Syria was a one-time affair or if it signals a policy shift toward deeper military involvement.

As a thumb rule, Russians give primacy to predictability and reliability in foreign policy even when the interlocutor could be an adversary. Whereas, the central problem with Trump is his unpredictability. Impulsive behavior and wayward foreign policy have become the hallmark of the Trump administration.

Read more: The US needs to prove that Syrian Government carried out the Chemical attack

Tillerson has his job cut out for him to convince the Russian side that Trump can be trusted. Being a long-time friend of Russia, he is well placed to pacify the troubled waters, but then, if he makes a good job of it, that may also land him trouble with the Russophobes back home.

To be sure, this is one extraordinary Russian-American diplomatic tango that Moscow is witnessing. Will Putin receive Tillerson tomorrow?

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”.  This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

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