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Tensions with Russia high as Tillerson heads to Moscow next week

Trump's Syria strike marks a policy reversal

Washington CNN  — 

The US attack on a Syrian air base Thursday devastated an airfield, sent a stark message to Syria and its protector Russia and raised a host of questions about whether and how the Trump administration’s stance on the Middle East might change.

President Donald Trump’s decision to punish Syria for a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people, including children, marked a 180-degree departure from the “America First” philosophy that signaled a rejection of international engagements and from his September 2016 declaration that the US “cannot be the policeman of the world.”

Instead, the decision to blast 60 Tomahawk missiles from a US Navy destroyer to wreak havoc inside Syria sends an entirely different signal that will put Damascus and other rogue regimes on notice and shape relations with Syria’s ally and protector Russia just as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to visit Moscow.

Administration officials insisted Friday that their overall policy hadn’t changed and that the strike was only meant to convey that chemical weapons are unacceptable.

But the strike could set in motion events that force Trump to take a more active role on the world stage, experts said, while others suggested the chemical weapons attack might have changed Trump’s outlook on the role the US should play.

“To me, it was a very clarifying moment for the president,” Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I’ve seen him evolve … in a good way on China, evolve in a good way on NATO, evolve in a good way on Israel.”

Trump has “maybe not had the experiences of those of us who have seen these people in refugee camps, have seen what this monster [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad has done in torturing people, and I think this was a clarifying moment for him.”

Indeed, Trump used to rail against former President Barack Obama for involvement in Syria and during the campaign he even floated the idea of cooperating with Assad. But at a Wednesday press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, Trump told reporters that “my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”

In the weeks leading up to the chemical attack, the administration had stressed that its priority in the Middle East was defeating ISIS, that it had no interest in getting mired there and that Assad’s removal – an Obama administration focus – was no longer a priority.

On Friday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced new sanctions against Syria were on the way. And a senior administration official cautioned the strike shouldn’t be seen as the beginning of a wider campaign to weaken or remove the Syrian leader. The official said the mission was aimed at dealing with the “unacceptability” of Assad’s use chemical weapons and that Trump’s priority focus remains defeating ISIS.

But analysts warned that having stepped into the Syrian fray, Trump may find it hard to step back or differentiate himself from Obama unless he takes steps to do more.

The International Rescue Committee was among groups that immediately started urging Trump to do more on Syria. “Now that the US administration has chosen to deploy military force, they have a greater responsibility to redouble diplomatic efforts toward establishing a credible path towards peace,” said IRC president David Miliband. He noted that “the only true protection from conflict is the end of conflict.”

Frederic Hof, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, said that if the strike is “simply a one-off, a punch in the nose for using those chemicals on those poor people, then the message is ‘do whatever you want, as long as it’s not with chemicals’.”

Trump’s press secretary would not say definitively whether the President believes the Syrian leader should go. “The President’s actions were very decisive last night, and very clear about what he thinks needs to get done,” Sean Spicer told reporters in Florida on Thursday.

 “The Syrian government and the Assad regime should, at a minimum, agree to abide by the agreements they made not to use chemical weapons,” Spicer said. “I think that’s where we start,” he said.

Hof, who served as Obama’s special adviser for transition in Syria, is among the many who argue that Assad’s brutality acts as a major recruiting tool for terrorists, and that leaving the Syrian leader in place “will make it very hard for the administration to meet its primary objective of defeating Daesh,” the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

In that light, leaving Assad in power would mean the US strike “will ultimately go down in history as a particularly useless gesture,” Hof said. “That’s why I think it’s important for the Trump administration to get the message to the Russians, ‘You’ve got to get your guy out’.”

Tillerson is set to travel to Moscow next week, and though he is new to diplomacy, he is deeply familiar with Russia, where he spent time during his work as CEO of ExxonMobil. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he was “particularly disappointed” by the way the strike “damages US-Russia relations, (but) I don’t think this will lead to an irreversible situation.”

Russia suspended but didn’t cancel a deconfliction channel the US and Russian militaries use to ensure they don’t accidentally clash during operations against ISIS. “Clearly it complicates the bilateral relationship in the short term,” Alexander Vershbow, a former US ambassador to Russia who is now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, said of the strike.

James Jeffrey, a former ambassador to Iraq who is now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it’s unlikely Russia will have much success using the attack against the US. The fulsome international support for the US strike “is going to box Russia in” if it tries to attack the US at the United Nations, he said.

Russia might even see an advantage in the strike, said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute. He notes the Russians have had “a hard time” getting Assad to the negotiating table with the Syrian opposition. Now, he said, they could use the strike to apply pressure, warning that the regime might be subject to more if they don’t cooperate.

“Having a sword of Damocles hanging over Assad’s head is not necessarily a bad thing,” Tabler said.

Vershbow sees an opportunity for the US to apply pressure as well. “If Russia wants an endless civil war, they will continue to shield Assad,” the former ambassador said. Tillerson should tell Russia that “if you want to bring this to an end, giving Assad impunity has to stop,” he said. The question, Vershbow added, is whether the US will be prepared “to threaten the ‘or else’ part.”

“So I think the administration has to think through clearly,” Vershbow said, “because without an ‘or else,’ it’s not going to be a credible message.”

CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report