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In context: What does the airstrike on Syria mean for America’s relationship with Russia?

By Lauren AguirreApril 14, 2017

Tillerson Lavrov
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after a joint news conference following their talks on April 12, 2017 in Moscow, Russia. Getty Images

An American airstrike was launched on military targets in Syria during the first week of April in response to the use of chemical weapons by the government against Syrian citizens. This comes after President Donald Trump’s predecessor continually refused to initiate any kind of action in the country — military or humanitarian. What does United States involvement in the conflict mean for the region? What does it mean for future foreign policy?

But first up, what exactly is the conflict in Syria? You should know a little of the background on the conflict before we dive into how America’s involvement might affect it.

In Syria, a civil war has been brewing for years and will likely continue for years to come. It began in 2011 on the tails of the Arab Spring, which was a string of revolts in Arab countries that toppled several authoritarian leaders. Peaceful protests began in Syria that March after 15 boys were detained and tortured for having written graffiti in support of the Arab Spring. For more on the conflict, take a look at our piece explaining the crisis in Aleppo, Syria.


Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama insisted that he would not intervene in Syria unless there was an attack using chemical weapons...

Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama insisted that he would not intervene in Syria unless there was an attack using chemical weapons — which are banned from use by a United Nations treaty that also requires their destruction within a specific period of time. This was called his famous “red line.” And a chemical attack happened in August 2013. Sarin gas was used by the Syrian government on rebel-held land. Pictures and stories from the scene reverberated around the world and some demanded action from the United States in light of Obama’s red line on chemical weapons.

Obama went to Congress to ask for a vote in favor of American intervention. The idea didn’t pass and didn’t have much support among the public. But there was a diplomatic solution. Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to force Syrian President Bashar Assad to surrender his chemical arsenal if Obama promised not to bomb Syria. That surprise offer from Russia resulted in the peaceful removal of 1,300 tons of Syria’s chemical weapons.


Russia has been a long-time ally of the Syrian government and Assad.

But it seems Syria either safeguarded chemical weapons or created more. In the beginning of April 2017, the Syrian government launched another attack against rebels and civilians using chemical weapons. Photos from the aftermath and descriptions of symptoms of the victims points to sarin gas. In response, President Donald Trump launched an airstrike on a Syrian government airbase. This strike has increased tensions between the United States and Russia and Syria.

Russia has been a long-time ally of the Syrian government and Assad. Russia has provided troops to aid Assad in taking down the rebel groups. The airstrike against a Syrian military target understandably ruffled some feathers. Trump even said going into Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s meeting with Russian officials that relations between the two countries “may be at an all-time low.”

And during a joint press conference with Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov disagreed about who ordered the chemical attack that killed over 100 Syrians, including dozes of children. Tillerson said Assad ordered the attack, but Lavrov cast doubt on that idea and refuted Tilleron’s assertions that the Assad regime should come to an end. With this disagreement, it is difficult to imagine further successful meetings and negotiations with Russia.