It is hard to see US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson coming way from the talks he is holding with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow Wednesday, April 12, with a neatly wrapped diplomatic package for cooling the boiling tensions between their governments. President Vladimir Putin seems more than ready to turn up the heat. Tuesday, he claimed he had information (no source cited) of a potential incident similar to the alleged chemical attack in Idlib province, possibly targeting the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Speaking at a joint press conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella in Moscow, Putin said: “The goal is to discredit the government of Syrian President Assad. We have reports from multiple sources that false flags like this one – and I cannot call it otherwise – are being prepared in other parts of Syria, including the southern suburbs of Damascus. They plan to plant some chemical there and accuse the Syrian government of an attack.”
Putin did not say whom he was accusing, but his prediction of another incident sets the scene for more Syrian government chemical attacks very soon, while blaming America and US-backed Syrian rebels for “provocations.”
US Defense Secretary James Mattis, in contrast, appeared to be trying to pour oil on the churning waters, when he denied at his first news conference Tuesday that he had set any “red lines” and insisted that the Tomahawk missile attack on the Syrian Shayrat air base, which had destroyed some 20 percent of Assad’s warplanes, was separate from the main US goal which was to defeat ISIS in Syria. But he also stressed that the Trump administration would not remain passive in the face of more chemical attacks.
On his way to Moscow, Tillerson gave Russian an ultimatum “to choose between aligning itself with the US and likeminded countries or embracing Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran and the militant group Hezbollah.”
The Kremlin’s riposte greeted him before he landed: Foreign Minister Lavrov invited the Iranian and Syrian foreign ministers to Moscow on Friday. They would arrive on the heels of Secretary Tillerson’s departure. Putin was sticking to his guns and making it clear that he was solidly supported by – and in control of – his allies.
Early Wednesday, ahead of the Tillerson-Lavrov interview, President Trump tried belatedly to mute the effect of the ultimatum which left Moscow no option but to ditch Assad or else. "We're not going into Syria,” he said. Asked if the United States is going to get involved in Syria, Trump said: "No – only if I see them using gas…”
The two powers appear to have maneuvered themselves into a situation which could easily spiral out of their control. Suffice it for someone in Tehran to decide that this would be a good time to carry out a military operation, even a small one, against US forces in Syria, or hit Israeli or Jordanian forces along Syria’s borders with Iraq, Jordan and Israel. Both Trump and Putin would be dragged into action by such events.
It is therefore to be expected that Tillerson, who failed to forge a unified front at the G7 foreign ministers’ conference in Italy Tuesday, will leave Moscow empty-handed. The military tension in Syria and around its borders will therefore remain high, with US, Russian and the Israeli and Jordanian armies all on a high state of preparedness.