Can Russia “play” Trump?

Today, President Trump tweeted: “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all. . . .” I think Trump is reacting to criticism that by threatening an attack on Syria he tipped of the Syrians and the Russians, in contradiction to his oft-repeated argument that we should leave our adversaries guessing. In his tweet, Trump seems to be saying that the Syrians and the Russians must guess about the timing of an attack.

He may also be buying himself time. And the longer Trump waits, the less likely an attack becomes. Trump might change his mind. He might become distracted. The Russians and/or their intermediaries might talk him out of it.

In a case like this, the best practice, when feasible, is to strike quickly and without warning. That’s what Trump did in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons last April.

This April, there are reasons to wait, though. For one thing, Trump needs to obtain a high level of confidence that the Assad regime is responsible for the chemical attacks. France now has that high level of confidence, but I’m not sure the U.S. does.

In addition, last year’s attack on Syria was a small-scale deal. This time, Trump contemplates a much larger military operation, as he should. That takes planning. Planning takes time.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that Russia, which initially warned of retaliation if the U.S. were to strike in Syria, is now signaling that it might not do so:

Analysts in Russia said the focus now is on ways to ensure that any strikes are limited so that they don’t kill Russians, thereby allowing Moscow to refrain from carrying out its threats to retaliate. Thousands of Russian troops and military advisers are stationed at military facilities across Syria, where they have been supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s seven-year-old efforts to crush the rebellion against his rule. . . .

The Kommersant newspaper quoted anonymous Defense Ministry sources as saying that the general staff of Russia’s military was in touch with the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and expected to receive coordinates on airstrike targets from the Pentagon to avoid Russian casualties.

It makes sense, of course, to try to avoid Russian casualties in any attack on Syria. However, it’s imperative not to let Russia set the terms of our military response.

This, I suspect, is the Kremlin’s game here. In the guise of avoiding Russian casualties, it wants to set the parameters of a U.S. attack. Naturally, this attack would be one that did not materially hurt the Assad regime, which Russia is determined to prop up. But there would be enough fireworks for Trump to look tough in the eyes of many Americans.

I detect a pattern in how our more clever adversaries intend to deal with Trump. Push back hard against Trump’s initial wave of rhetoric, but then offer an olive branch. After that, try to negotiate a deal that makes Trump look good back home but does not thwart the objectives of our adversary.

Thus, North Korea met Trump’s tough words with tough words of its own, but eventually showed a willingness to negotiate. Would the regime ever agree to denuclearization? I very much doubt it. But it might agree, say, to stop testing missiles, along with some additional token concessions. Trump could then claim to have frozen the program, something his predecessors were unable to accomplish, while North Korea would be well-positioned quietly to edge forward with its nuclear program and to proceed full blast at a later date.

Similarly, China met Trump’s first set of tariffs by announcing stiffer tariffs on our products. But recently, it seemed prepared to back down and enter into negotiations.

Would China agree, say, to end its war on U.S. technological firms and thereby abandon its “Made in China 2025” program, a blueprint for (among other things) gaining ascendancy in the technological sector that depends on unfair practices including theft? I very much doubt it. However, it might agree to minor concessions that marginally help particular American constituencies and that Trump can sell back home as demonstrating how easy it is to win a trade war.

Why shouldn’t Russia pursue this kind of approach as a means of coping with Trump in Syria? It pulled off something similar with Barack Obama when Syria crossed the “red line” on chemical weapons.

The Russians, the Chinese, and the North Koreans know something about “the art of the deal.” Each has played previous U.S. presidents, and Trump will have to prove to them that he’s in a different league. Trump can’t get away with simply asserting it. This isn’t the New Hampshire primary.

As I see it, the Russians, the Chinese, and the North Koreans are already trying to “play” Trump. Syria will be a fascinating test for our president.


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