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Heating Diplomatic Fronts

Russia, China, North Korea, Syria, who’s next to get in the mix?

President+Donald+Trump+%28Center%29+speaking+with+Vice+President+Mike+Pence+%28Left%29+and+Secretary+of+Homeland+Security+John+F.+Kelly+%28Right%29
President Donald Trump (Center) speaking with Vice President Mike Pence (Left) and Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly (Right)

President Donald Trump (Center) speaking with Vice President Mike Pence (Left) and Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly (Right)

U.S. Department of Homeland Security

U.S. Department of Homeland Security

President Donald Trump (Center) speaking with Vice President Mike Pence (Left) and Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly (Right)

Miguel Arriola, Intern

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The U.S. missile strike on the Syrian airbase on April 6 happened when Chinese President Xi Jinping met with President Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, to discuss the U.S. and North Korean-Chinese tensions. In what might have been a surprise to the Chinese leader, Trump told him over chocolate cake that he had launched strikes on Syria and that “I want you to know that.”  When speaking of this to a reporter, Trump misstated the country he attacked, referring to Iraq initially rather than Syria.  Democracy Now reported President Trump’s comment came as he backtracks on aims to brand China as a currency manipulator.  

Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence officials cited satellite images as evidence of a possible upcoming North Korean nuclear test, which would be the sixth attempt. Responding to Fox News’ question of what the U.S. is doing regarding North Korea, Trump answered, “You never know…do you?  You never know…” adding, “We are sending an armada, very powerful. We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier…and I will say this. He [Kim Jong-un] is doing the wrong thing.”

The timing of the missile strikes might have been a diplomatic embarrassment for China, which is an ally of Russia, which in turn is the main backer of Damascus in the proxy and civil war that continues in Syria. Speaking on April 12, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrapped up discussions with Russia’s President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Trump said, “…Right now we’re not getting along with Russia at all…This has been for a long period of time…but we’re gonna see what happens…Russia is a strong country.  We are a very very strong country…” Additionally, he declared that although NATO did not always fight terrorism, now it does. He had once said NATO was obsolete but now it is no longer the case. He further stated that he hopes NATO will support Iraq.  These comments were made one day after Trump approved the enlargement of NATO and the entry of the south east European nation of Montenegro into the alliance.

The move is condemned by Russia, which is contending with large NATO military exercises on its borders.  The U.S. accused Russia of seeking to cover up alleged Syrian government responsibility for the recent chemical attack, while Russia argued the U.S. was too quick to blame Damascus for the attack and charges the U.S. with breaking international law by attacking sovereign Syria without a UN mandate.

In an interview by Democracy Now, Stephen F. Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies at NYU and Princeton, reminded viewers that the missile strikes were not the first time the U.S. has attacked the Syrian state, recalling that in 2016, Russia and the U.S. agreed on a ceasefire in Syria. This agreement, which occurred during the time of the battle for Aleppo, was broken when the Pentagon broke the Putin-Obama truce by bombing the Syrian army and killing several dozen soldiers.  Cohen also noted the importance of comments made by Tillerson in his meetings with the Russian leadership.  “There is no trust between us and that is not acceptable when you are talking about the two nuclear superpowers.”  Cohen speculated that the Russian leadership asked Tillerson, “Who is making policy toward us in Washington?”  

Another question would be what is the U.S. policy now toward Syria. The historian highlights that this is the most dangerous point in U.S.-Russian relations since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that it is arguably more dangerous because it is more complex than that crisis of the 1960s.

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Heating Diplomatic Fronts