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Trump draws back on criticism of Russia

Succession of tweets from Donald Trump appear to dilute criticisms made earlier

It has been an utterly fascinating day for followers of Donald Trump’s tweets.

The day began with Trump responding in his usual overblown way to a needlessly provocative comment from the Russian ambassador to Lebanon, who is reported to have said that the Russians would shoot down all and every missile the US launched against Syria.

This statement – by a relatively junior ambassador in Russia’s diplomatic hierarchy – goes far beyond what other far more senior Russian officials – notably Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia – have been saying, and is almost certainly untrue.

I have discussed how Russia would respond to a US strike on Syria on numerous occasions.

Briefly, so long as any US strike does not endanger Russian personnel in Syria, or threaten the existence of the Syrian government, or interfere in Syrian army operations against the major concentrations of Jihadi fighters, the Russians will not act to prevent it, though as they showed following the US strike on Syria’s Al-Shayrat air base last year, that does not mean that they will not respond to it at all.

Only if a US strike crosses these red lines have the Russians said that they will take counter-action.

The Russians have spelled out their red lines in Syria on numerous occasions, and I have no doubt the US understands them.

The comments of the Russian ambassador to Lebanon went far beyond these red lines, and should not therefore be taken seriously.

However unsurprisingly these nuances were lost on Donald Trump, who typically tends to overreact to what he perceives as challenges – he has done repeatedly in response to comments by Kim Jong-un –  as every Russian diplomat should by now know.

I suspect that the Russian ambassador in Lebanon is now on the receiving end of some pretty tough reprimands from Moscow.

The result of his foolish comments has been an incendiary tweet from Donald Trump purporting to respond to Russia’s apparent challenge, which has rocked the whole world, causing markets to crash and leading to talk on the BBC about the coming of World War III.

Vladimir Putin for his part however moved quickly to calm the situation, using a meeting with foreign ambassadors at the Kremlin to utter some carefully chosen emollient words

Today, the role of diplomacy and the diplomat has taken on special significance. Indeed, the state of affairs in the world is a cause for concern. The situation in the world is becoming more chaotic, nevertheless we still hope that common sense will eventually prevail, and that international relations will take a constructive course, and the entire world system will become more stable and predictable.

In the meantime, roughly 30 minutes after his first tweet, Donald Trump followed it with a far more conciliatory one

Shortly after there followed an even more conciliatory tweet, one which not only lamented the bad state of relations between the US and Russia, but which – with great justice – put most of the blame for this on the Democrats and the phoney Russiagate scandal

What explains this strange behaviour?

Some people see these contradictory tweets as further evidence of Donald Trump’s insanity.

In my opinion they are the product of a mixture of injured pride inflamed by the Russian ambassador to Lebanon’s foolish comments, and extreme stress caused by the truly disgraceful Cohen affair.

The barrage of tweets in fact comes shortly after media reports were suggesting that the US might be intending a more limited response to the Douma incident than some earlier reports had suggested.

What looks like a well-sourced article in The New York Times suggests that there is actually little enthusiasm within the Trump administration for the sort of all-encompassing and highly dangerous air and missile campaign against Syria that some are worrying about

Administration officials said they expected any new strike to be more expansive than last year’s, but the question was how much more. Possible options included hitting more than a single target and extending strikes beyond a single day.

But even so, Mr. Trump remained reluctant to deepen American involvement over a longer term…..

Heavily backed by Russian air support and Iranian ground forces, Syria is in a different league than adversaries in other places where the United States is at war. Unlike the Islamic State in various parts of the Middle East, the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Shabab in Somalia, the Syrian government has extensive air defense and missile systems capable of shooting down foreign planes.

Sending bombers and fighter jets, with American or French pilots, to strike Syrian airfields or other facilities is considered risky because it could deepen the conflict if a pilot was shot down. That is why the Pentagon is looking at the same sort of retaliation used last year when two Navy destroyers unleashed a fusillade of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Al Shayrat airfield that was believed to have been used to launch chemical attacks.

This came alongside an interesting and also apparently well-informed article in The Times of London (since taken down), which suggested that the British government – wary of provoking a British public deeply skeptical of further interventions in the Middle East – was advising the US administration to hold back until the OPCW inspectors had confirmed that a chemical weapons attack in Douma had actually taken place

Perhaps the most authoritative comment of all suggesting that only a limited strike – essentially a larger version of last year’s strike on Al-Sharyat air base – is planned came from President Macron of France

Our decision will not target allies of the regime or attack anyone but rather attack the regime’s chemical capabilities

That goes out of the way to make clear that no attack on Russian or Iranian troops in Syria is planned, and that no all-out air offensive against Syria is planned either.

I would add that one particular source of international alarm – the reports about the US aircraft carrier Truman and its escorts steaming towards the Syrian coast – looks to me misjudged.

This appears to be a routine US naval redeployment planned many months ago.  The Russian Defence Ministry says the Truman and its escorting warships cannot reach the Syrian coast until the first week of May.  That makes it extremely unlikely that the Truman will take part in any operations against Syria.  If or rather when the US missile strike on Syria takes place, it will be launched by US and allied military assets already present in the area.

The result of Donald Trump’s cluster of tweets is that it is now politically impossible for the US not to launch a strike against Syria.  Moreover the political imperative means that this must be done within the next hours or days.

This is in every respect deplorable.  Not only does it interfere in the most gross way imaginable in the investigation the OPCW is planning to carry out in Douma, but it is a straightforward act of armed aggression against Syria, which is a sovereign state which is not threatening the US.

However it is important to remain calm and to retain a sense of proportion – as Russian President Putin is doing – and not to overreact to what is unquestionably a very bad situation.

Though something very bad and very wrong is about to happen, it is not the start of World War III.

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