MOSCOW – If Russia once maintained at least a semblance of distance from President Bashar Assad of Syria, it rushed to his defense after the U.S. missile strikes ordered by President Donald Trump on Thursday. The attack cemented Moscow more closely than ever to the Syrian autocrat.
Even as the United States condemned Assad for gassing his own citizens and held Russia partly responsible, given its 2013 promise to rid Syria of chemical weapons, the Kremlin kept denying that Syria had any such capability.
By championing Assad and condemning U.S. “aggression,” President Vladimir Putin of Russia seemed to be burying the idea that he could somehow cooperate with the Trump administration to end the conflict on his terms.
The solidarity with Damascus is likely to cause problems for Russia in the long run, analysts said, although Putin probably cannot be persuaded to loosen his embrace any time soon.
The Russian government often takes its time to react to major world events, but the Kremlin issued a prompt statement early Friday castigating the U.S. for the missile strikes on an airfield in retaliation for Syria’s chemical weapons attack.
The Russian Defense Ministry vowed to strengthen Syria’s air defense systems, sent a frigate on a port call and froze an agreement with the U.S. to coordinate activity in Syrian airspace. “Putin made a choice — to underline that Assad is his ally,” said Alexander Morozov, an independent political analyst. “This will lead to Russia’s further isolation.”
Trump and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, have painted Russia as at least partly responsible for the carnage among civilians that was fomented by the Assad government.
“Moscow’s main problem is not that the U.S. made a strike but that Trump and Tillerson have toughened their rhetoric on Syria and Assad,” said Vladimir Frolov, a foreign affairs analyst and columnist for Republic.ru.
He added, “They have said that Russia is responsible for Assad’s actions and that it didn’t fulfill its responsibilities in terms of chemical weapons disarmament.”
Protecting Assad could further repulse countries Moscow has been courting, like Turkey and Israel, analysts said — not to mention much of the world.
New York Times