After months of praise — calling him “smart”, congratulating his reelection, floating forming a “Cyber Security unit” — President Donald Trump finally called out Russian President Vladimir Putin by name on Twitter April 8, 2018, for the first time since taking office.
Trump placed part of the blame on Putin for the suspected chemical attack that killed at least 40 people in Douma, Syria on April 7, 2018. Putin’s government has backed Syrian government forces for years, while the US has sided with the opposition rebels.
“President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad,” Trump tweeted, referring to Russia’s support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “Big price … to pay.”
Ian Bremmer, president of geopolitical-risk firm Eurasia Group, said that if the US can get confirmation that chemical weapons were indeed used, Trump will probably order a strike like he did in April 2017 after the US concluded Assad’s regime was behind another chemical attack.
“I think he’s probably going to engage in strikes against Syria,” Bremmer told Business Insider on April 8, 2018. “He’s made very clear both then and now that he’s not going to tolerate use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime.”
(The White Helmets / Screenshot)
Lawmakers from both parties have encouraged Trump to make the call. Sen. John McCain of Arizona went so far as to say that Trump’s pledge to withdraw US troops from Syria “emboldened Assad.”
“Trump was quick to call out Assad, along with the Russian and Iranian governments, on Twitter. The question now is whether he will do anything about it,” McCain said in a statement. “The President responded decisively when Assad used chemical weapons in 2017. He should do so again, and demonstrate that Assad will pay a price for his war crimes.”
‘A defining moment’
Bremmer said Trump’s “strange” unwillingness to criticize Putin, and Russia in general, finally changed on April 8, 2018.
“None of us know why it is that Trump decided he was going to be so nice individually to Putin. It’s not like he cares about being nice to people,” Bremmer said. “Why was he being nice to Putin, and why is he suddenly shifting? Anyone that tells you they know the answer to that question is lying.”
The Trump administration is already imposing sanctions on Russian oligarchs and entities, and has expelled dozens of Russian diplomats. Bremmer said the US could decide to impose harsher sanctions on the country, conduct cyber attacks, or even release embarrassing information on Putin.
Former President Barack Obama didn’t escalate into this territory, Bremmer said, because Obama “recognized there was a potential for escalation that was quite dangerous.”
Trump also criticized Obama in a follow-up tweet on April 8, 2018, saying that his predecessor should have “Drawn A Red Line In The Sand.”
“There’s one thing we know is that Trump absolutely wants to show that he is the opposite of Obama,” Bremmer said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on ABC’s “This Week” that Trump has the opportunity to “reset the table” in Syria, and suggested bombing Assad’s air force and setting up so-called safe zones to achieve peace.
“If it becomes a tweet without meaning, then he has hurt himself in North Korea. If he doesn’t follow through and live up to that tweet, he’s going to look weak in the eyes of Russia and Iran,” Graham said. “So this is a defining moment, Mr. President. You need to follow through with that tweet. Show a resolve that Obama never did to get this right.”
What the international community plans to do about Assad
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
“One of the few things that Trump has done in foreign policy that really the international community widely supported was the strikes that he engaged in April 2017,” Bremmer said.
The US, along with France, the UK and other nations called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting to be held on April 9, 2018, “in reference to the horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians in Syria,” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley tweeted April 8, 2018.
“This is becoming all too common,” Haley wrote. “Strong action is needed.”
The US could partner with France in the strike directly. Bremmer said French President Emmanuel Macron “recently put out his own red lines against Assad, saying that he would strike any base that lethal chemical attacks were launched from. He said he’d do it by himself.”
Bremmer said “given that Macron and Trump have both made those statements, I think strikes against Assad do make sense,” adding that the US would need to be careful not to hit Russian forces.
One potential downside is that Russia could execute more cyber attacks in response, Bremmer said, which could further deteriorate relations between the US and Russia.
“We’re not heading to a nuclear war with the Russians, but this is a dangerous period,” Bremmer said. “If the Americans engage in direct strikes against Assad given their direct support by the Russians and the Iranians — it is a dangerous thing to do, but I do think that it’s an appropriate thing to do in this environment.”