Trump To Putin: Get Ready, U.S. Missiles Are Coming. Also, Can We Make a Deal?
The President Tweeted out two contradictory messages as the United States stumbles closer to a dangerous escalation in Syria.
In response to the growing possibility of U.S. military action against Syria's Bashar Al Assad, Russia's Ambassador to Lebanon reiterated his country's support for the dictator and said Russian forces would shoot down any incoming American missiles and potentially take retaliatory action. In response, U.S. President Donald Trump, in his trademark freewheeling and sometimes incoherent style, has now offered both a direct threat and an olive branch via his outlet of choice, Twitter.
The two Tweets came within an hour of each other on April 11, 2018. Trump has never shied away from making bold threats of military or other action against foreign countries on social media, but his initial post may be the first in which he effectively promised imminent and tangible military action. Alexander Zasypkin, the Russian Ambassador to Lebanon, had made his own comments in an interview with Al Manar TV, an outlet the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah controls, late on April 10, 2018.
"Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria," the president wrote. "Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and 'smart!' You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!"
It is unclear what types of missiles, if any, Trump might have been referring to specifically. There have been no public reports from any branch of the U.S. military about the induction into service of a "new" stand-off, land-attack missile since he took office in 2017. In addition, all such existing American weapons in this category can be broadly described as "smart," which generally means they feature some sort of guidance system.
And though it is likely that Syrian air defenders and their Russian partners would attempt to shoot down any incoming missiles, it's unclear how successful they would necessarily be, especially against a barrage with dozens of weapons. On April 7, 2017, the U.S. Navy conducted a punitive strike against Assad, firing nearly 60 low-flying Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles at the Syrian Air Force's Shayrat Air Base. The U.S. military could hope to overwhelm any defenses within Syria with a similar strike or combine it with low-observable aircraft, such as the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber or F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, or stealthy stand-off weapons, such as the AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range, or JASSM-ER.
The Kremlin does have S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems and their associated radars in the country, which reportedly have some capability against low-flying cruise missiles. In addition, Russia has deployed A-50U Mainstay radar planes to the country that reportedly has the ability to track those types of targets, which could help alert air defense personnel to incoming threats.
However, Assad's own forces have so far been unable to fully neutralize incoming Israeli attacks or successfully intercept all of their stand-off weapons. The Russians have not intervened in any of those instances, which might have revealed the extent of their added capabilities.
But whatever the actual capacity of the integrated Syrian-Russian air defense network to brush off an American missile attack is, it is bizarre that Trump would decide to not only telegraph his intention to strike, but also clearly announce his intention to do so in the near future. As a private citizen, presidential candidate, and now President of the United States, he has repeatedly stated that the U.S. military should not publicly describe even the broadest timetables for action in order to maintain a "surprise" advantage. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and his team at the Pentagon have echoed this sentiment for more than a year now.
"The department does not comment on potential future military actions. I refer you to the White House to characterize the President's tweet," Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement to Reuters on April 11, 2018. "As the President noted on April 8, the chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime against innocent civilians in Duma, Syria on April 7 was horrifying, and demands an immediate response from the international community."
Later that day, Secretary Mattis said that the United States was "still assessing the intelligence" regarding the Douma incident, appearing to walk back the President's comments, in comments to the press around a scheduled meeting with Dutch Defense Minister Ank Bijleveld. "We stand ready to provide military options if they’re appropriate as the President determined,” SecDef Mattis added, further clouding the issue.
Beyond the brazenness of using social media to inform the Russians of an apparently impending missile strike in Syria, Trump further confused the matter by almost immediately suggesting that there could also be a negotiated solution. A second Tweet seemed to offer a rollback of American sanctions on Russian individuals and businesses in exchange for unspecified concessions.
On April 6, 2018, the Treasury Department unveiled a massive new package of economic restrictions that hit more than half dozen Russian oligarchs, a dozen companies they own, nearly 20 Russian government officials, the Kremlin's state arms broker Rosoboroneksport, and a bank in Russia.
"Our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War. There is no reason for this," Trump declared. "Russia needs us to help with their economy, something that would be very easy to do, and we need all nations to work together. Stop the arms race?"
The Russian government has already responded to the president's latest comments, with Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova saying that the United States should save its "smart missiles" for "terrorists, not the legitimate [Syria] government." She went on to suggest that an American strike on Assad could destroy evidence of the horrific Syrian government chemical weapon attack on Douma – which Russia denies occurred – before offering up yet another completely unfounded conspiracy theory that the U.S. military's plans were part of a deliberate effort to conceal the truth of that incident.
Iranian authorities, Assad's other principle benefactor, have also announced their intention to stand by the Syrian government against "foreign aggression." The Syrian dictator himself remains defiant and Russian state-run media outlet Sputnik has insisted that he remains in the country with his family.
But if the United States already seemed to be stumbling closer to some sort of military action against the Syrian regime in order to make good on previous threats, Trump has now created even more of a rhetorical trap that will make it difficult not to act without embarrassing him or his Administration as a whole. If there is any truth to the Tweet, we could be seeing how all this plays out in real time within days, or even hours.
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