Missile strikes on Syria put US relationship with Russia at risk

The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea, April 7, 2017.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea, April 7, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The US military strike against Syria ruptured Russia-US relations on Friday (April 7) as the Kremlin denounced President Donald Trump's use of force and suspended an agreement to share information about air operations over the country that was designed to avoid accidental conflict.

President Vladimir Putin's office called the missile strike on Syria a "significant blow" to the Russia-US relationship while Trump administration officials suggested Russia bore some responsibility for the chemical weapons attack on civilians that precipitated the missile strike.

Fewer than 100 Russian troops deployed in support of the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad were believed to be stationed at the Syrian air base targeted by US forces.

A US official said the Russians on the ground were given just 60 to 90 minutes of advance notice that the cruise missiles were coming and were not advised whether to take shelter or flee.

On Friday in Beijing, meanwhile, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman signalled China’s displeasure with the US response while condemning the chemical weapons attack and calling for a UN investigation, said a report in the Financial Times.

 

“China never interferes in the internal affairs of other countries. The Syrian president is elected by the people of Syria and we respect their choice,” said Hua Chunying, adding that Beijing “always opposed the use of force in international relations”.

Although Russia did not deploy its air defence system in Syria against the US cruise missiles, it flexed its military muscles after the attack. The minister of defence, Sergei Shoigu, said that Russia would bolster Syria's air defence systems, and the Russian news agency Tass reported that a frigate would enter the Mediterranean Sea on Friday and would visit the logistics base at the Syrian port of Tartus.

US officials faulted Russia for not enforcing compliance with a 2013 agreement with Syria to eliminate all of its chemical weapons.

"Clearly, Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on that commitment from 2013," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday night. "So either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement."

Russia denied that Syria had any such weapons or that it was behind the attack in Idlib province on Tuesday that left more than 80 people dead, an attack that Western officials have said was conducted with sarin, a lethal nerve agent. Moscow said the attack was a false pretext to launch an air assault against Assad's government.

Syria has denied that it possesses chemical weapons.

The US cruise missile strikes hit Al Shayrat airfield and were aimed at Syrian fighter jets and other infrastructure. US officials said the chemical weapon attack was conducted from that air base. The Syrian army said six people were killed.

The FT report said the US military strike could lend credibility to Trump’s threat to punish North Korea unilaterally for its repeated missile and nuclear tests — or to the US President and his secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s warnings  that they could take a tough stance on the Chinese military’s “island­ building” activities in the South China Sea.

Liu Binjie, who sits on the standing committee that oversees China’s parliament, said China would be very cautious because “both sides’ bottom lines are not clear”, adding: “We don’t want to spark any confrontation or take the initiative.”

Liu also warned against unilateral action on North Korea.

“The entire state is militarised,” he told the FT. “If you threaten them with force, it may backfire on you.”

Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie­Tsinghua Centre in Beijing, told the FT that Friday’s talks could shed light on whether Mr Xi might be willing to alter his government’s traditionally cautious approach to Pyongyang after the repeated provocations by Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s supreme leader.

“The one wild card is Xi Jinping,” said Mr Haenle, who also advised former US president Barack Obama on Asia policy and regularly meets Chinese policymakers.

“We know anecdotally that his level of frustration with Kim Jong Un is very, very high.”