Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is meeting with Russian officials this week in Italy, and Syria is at the top of the agenda.
While the meeting of the G7 nations is generally an opportunity for the world’s seven largest national economies to discuss trade and finance, the recent U.S. airstrikes on Syrian airfields and the future of Russian support for the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad dominated the conversation.
Officials and leaders aren’t just concerned with Syria’s decision to once again use chemical weapons against civilians, but whether that attack will lead to a potential military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia.
“We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people. Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role,” Tillerson told the same reporters to which the media claim he never speaks to. “Or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interests longer term. We cannot let this happen again.”
Why is Russia involved in Syria, and what evidence points to their involvement in the Assad regime’s chemical weapons program?
While Russia portrays its support of Assad as a bold stand against ISIS and the spread of international terrorism, the fact is the Kremlin was lending its unquestioned support to the Assad dictatorship for four decades before ISIS joined Syria’s ongoing civil war.
Russia maintains a naval base in the Syrian city of Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast.
The base allows the Russian Navy to project its force across southern Europe and North Africa.
The base opened in 1971, under an agreement with Syria’s then-president, Hafez Assad – Bashar Assad’s father.
Should Assad be deposed, a government led by Syria’s rebels would almost certainly terminate that agreement.
Without the base in Tartus – in order to refuel, resupply and repair – Russian ships would have to sail around Turkey and through the narrow Turkish straits to the Russian operational base in Sevastopol, in occupied Crimea.
Turkey is a NATO member, and would almost certainly blockade the straits to any Russian ship during any conflict between Russia and a NATO member.
Losing that Syrian base in Tartus would render Russia’s entire Mediterranean fleet useless.
So, to what lengths would Russia go to ensure Assad stays in power? U.S. officials are accusing the Kremlin of complicity in the chemical weapons attack on civilians.
Under a 2013 agreement with the Obama administration to rid Syria of chemical weapons, its ally Russia was tasked with identifying and removing chemical weapons and chemical weapons production facilities, and with inspection and verification it had been done.
“Clearly Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on that commitment,” Tillerson said of last week’s sarin gas attack.
“Either Russia has been complicit or simply incompetent on delivering its end of that agreement.”
Tasking Russia with eliminating chemical weapons is the international equivalent of hiring Michael Moore to be your personal trainer.
Russia has a disturbing history of not only using chemical weapons, but using them against civilians.
On April 9, 1989, almost 28 years to the day of Syria’s gas attack, Russian forces used CN gas during violent attacks to suppress demonstrations in Tbilisi, Georgia.
CN is related to CS gas or “tear gas”, but most law enforcement and security agencies refuse to use it, citing concerns about its toxicity. Twenty-one people died in the massacre.
A Soviet report on the massacre admitted the use of toxic gas, noting autopsies found “damage to the health of those taking part in the events of 9 April showed up… in the form of traumata, poisonings by TC, or their combinations… The pattern of poisoning… differs noticeably from the usual pattern for cases of use of toxic chemicals of this kind.”
More recently, the current Russian dictatorship of Vladimir Putin routinely uses poison and radiation to assassinate their critics.
Russia also used tea poisoned with radioactive polonium to kill dissident Alexander Litvinenko.
In 2015, opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza fell into a coma after being poisoned with an unknown substance.
Investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin died in 2003 after being poisoned with thallium.
Another investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, nearly died in 2004 after drinking poisoned tea on a Russian airliner, only to be shot in her apartment a year later, on Putin’s birthday.
Russia’s involvement in Syria is one of pure self interest, and history shows former Soviet officials like Putin are more than willing to illegally use chemical warfare to advance their agenda.
The question now is: What – if any – actions will the U.S. take against Russia?
Russia appears unconcerned, having vetoed a United Nations resolution Wednesday condemning the chemical attack.