By MICHAEL CROWLEY and LOUIS NELSON
President Donald Trump’s potential military strike against Syria is putting him on a dangerous new collision course with Russian President Vladimir Putin, just weeks after Trump invited the Russian leader to the White House.
On a day when Trump tweeted a vow to attack Syrian government forces — mocking a Russian threat of retaliation — experts and former U.S. officials warned that Washington and Moscow could stumble into a dangerous clash.
Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2018
The rising hostilities are an unexpected turn some 18 months after Trump warned that his 2016 campaign rival, Hillary Clinton, favored a tough stance toward Russia in Syria that could “lead to World War III.” As a candidate, Trump repeatedly said the U.S. and Russia could work together in Syria, where Assad has been fighting a seven-year civil war with Russian military support.
“Get ready Russia,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning, added that missiles “will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart! You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
Trump also declared that the U.S.-Russian relationship is now “worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War.”
Still, Trump refrained from specifically naming Putin, with whom he has repeatedly said he hopes to “get along.” And the Russian president himself avoidedescalating the rhetoric in Moscow on Wednesday, obliquely saying only that “the situation in the world is becoming more chaotic” but that “we still hope that common sense will eventually prevail and international relations will enter a constructive course.”
Our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War. There is no reason for this. Russia needs us to help with their economy, something that would be very easy to do, and we need all nations to work together. Stop the arms race?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2018
Carpenter said “the Russians will be prudent in how they select their response” to any U.S. action in Syria, predicting that they would use electronic warfare capabilities and sophisticated S-400 anti-air missile systems to try and shoot down the cruise missiles the U.S. is likely to use in an attack.
“I would expect Russia to try hard to shoot down cruise missiles and claim this as a victory,” added Alexander Bick, a former national security council official overseeing Syria in the Obama White House. “I would also expect an intensified diplomatic effort to portray the U.S. presence in Syria as illegal, and possibly more aggressive tactics to try to deny U.S. aircraft access to Syrian airspace,” Bick added.
U.S. officials and experts warn that events could take an even more dangerous turn if American missiles should kill any of the Russian soldiers who are assisting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in the country. Russians are likely present at most key military targets inside of Syria, according to a former senior Obama administration Pentagon official.
Well before the current crisis, Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, warned in a June Wall Street Journal op-ed that “the probability of direct military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia has risen” in Syria. Bolton went on to argue that the U.S. must challenge Russian influence in the country.
Trump officials are debating a military response to a recent chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma that the U.S. attributes to Assad’s government. Russia is allied with Assad and fervently opposes U.S. action against his forces and was furious after Trump fired missiles at a Syrian airbase last April to punish another chemical attack.
A commentary and video posted on the Kremlin-funded news outlet RT on Wednesday suggested that Trump was preparing to bomb Syria for political reasons.
“President Trump, once a vocal critic of U.S. military involvement in Syria, has taken to Twitter to warn Damascus and Moscow about incoming ‘smart’ missiles. Is Trump’s slumping popularity a factor in his stunning policy reversal?” the unbylined commentary asked.
Although Trump’s words seemed to indicate that an attack on Assad’s forces is a certainty, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. is “still assessing the intelligence” suggesting the Assad regime was behind the attack, which killed at least 42 and sickened as many as 500. Syrian and Russian officials have blamed rebel fighters for the use of what experts say appears to have been nerve gas.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders later told reporters that “[f]inal decisions haven’t been made” on possible military action.
The harsh talk comes amid a growing diplomatic confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, despite Trump’s continued talk of dialogue with Putin.
In late March, the U.S. expelled 60 Russian diplomats to punish the attempted killing with a nerve agent of a Russian double agent living in London, which the U.S. blamed on Putin’s government. Last week, the U.S. sanctioned several Russian oligarchs as punishment for Russia’s 2016 election interference, one of several recent rounds of sanctions against Moscow.
Even amid the rising tensions, Trump called Putin on March 20 and — against the advice of his advisers — congratulated the Russian leader on an election victory widely criticized as anti-democratic. Trump also invited Putin to pay his first visit to the White House since 2005.
But Trump’s rhetoric toward Russia has been hardening, and on April 8 he tweetedcritically about the Russian leader’s support for Assad — the first time he had done so as president.
A retaliatory strike against Syria would be the second of Trump’s administration. A reported use of chemical weapons last year by Assad’s regime was met with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched at the Syrian airfield from which the attack was thought to have originated. But the airfield was soon repaired, and Trump took no further action.
Separately, Trump last year discontinued covert U.S. support for Syrian rebels fighting Assad’s regime begun by President Barack Obama. As a candidate, Trump warned that Islamic radicals will take over the country if Assad falls.