The Cable

Kremlin Likens Trump Syria Strike to Iraq Invasion

Russian Foreign Ministry says strike decided on ahead of chemical attack.

mad vlad

The Kremlin wasted no time in condemning the U.S. missile strike Thursday night on the Syrian airfield used to launch a chemical weapons attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime just days before.

The U.S. strike was “an act of aggression against a sovereign nation” in violation of international law and executed on “a false pretext,” Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman told reporters Friday.

He added that the move “substantially damages Russian-U.S. relations, which are already in a deplorable state.”

Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a strongly worded statement accusing the United States of fighting on the side of terrorists in Syria and asserting the 59 Tomahawk-missile strike was already in the works before Tuesday’s chemical attack. “Any expert can tell that the decision to strike was made in Washington before the events in Idlib, which were used as a pretext for a demonstration,” the ministry said.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced the U.S. strikes in a televised address Thursday night from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. He strongly condemned the chemical attack, which, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, killed at least 86 civilians in the Syrian town of Idlib. “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack,” he said. Trump pinned the blame on Assad, saying “there can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons.”

While Washington did not notify the Kremlin directly about the strike, which was launched off the Syrian coast in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the Pentagon said that the Russian military was informed about the attack through a so-called deconfliction mechanism meant to prevent clashes between the two countries. However, in reaction to the U.S. strike, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that it was withdrawing from the deconfliction agreement (though some say that was little more than a move to save face, since the extent to which the agreement affects how Russia and the United States navigate airspace is arguably quite limited). It then called for an urgent session of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the missile attack.

Speaking at a press conference for a summit held in the capital of Uzbekistan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov compared the military action approved by U.S. President Donald Trump to Washington’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“This reminds us of the 2003 situation, when the U.S. and the UK, along with their allies, intervened in Iraq without approval from the U.N. Security Council, which was a blatant breach of international law,” Lavrov said.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Major-General Igor Konashenkov took a somewhat different tack, saying the move was an altogether ineffective one. “The combat effectiveness of the U.S. massive missile strike on Syria’s airbase was thus very low,” he said. He asserted that only 23 out of the 59 missiles reached the Syrian airbase. “It’s unknown where the other missiles fell,” he said.

Konashenkov also reportedly said that his ministry was waiting for “incontestable proof” that the chemical weapons were used by the Syrian army. Russia has maintained that Syrian air strikes hit a depot where anti-Assad rebels were building chemical weapons, a claim the US has vigorously disputed.

Russian state-backed media wasted no time in chiming in. “US Destroys Syrian Army’s Major Outpost in Anti-Terror Fight by Hitting Airfield,” ran one Sputnik headline. “US Missile Strike Killed People Fighting Terrorists,” Assad’s top advisor reportedly told RT. Russian state television reported “there are killed and wounded” at the air base.

Moscow is one of Assad’s most important allies, and its military has been targeting all rebel groups in Syria, including opposition forces that the United States and other Western countries have been supporting, but also jihadis like the Islamic State. Since Russia’s first intervention in Syria in September 2015, it has run interference for its client state in Damascus — projecting power in the Middle East for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Thursday’s U.S. strike, which was launched from two Navy destroyers, is likely to be seen as a threat to Russia’s newfound status in the region. On Friday, the Russian news service TASS reported that the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s frigate The Admiral Grigorovich is to enter the Mediterranean and will stop at the Russian logistics base in Syria’s port of Tartus. Russia’s interest in the port is widely believed to be the driver behind ts strategy in Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking just after the strikes were announced, said Russia had “failed in its responsibility” to deliver on a 2013 deal it helped broker to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. If nothing else, that should give him something to talk about with Lavrov. The two are set to meet in Moscow next Wednesday.

Photo credit: PAVEL GOLOVKIN/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan
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