The December 2016 Syria peace talks between Russia, Iran and Turkey marked the high point of Russian influence in the Middle East. Playing a weak hand against a weaker American adversary Vladimir Putin had made himself the power broker in the Middle East. When the talks were convened the United States was conspicuously excluded.
Putin was profiting from a weak American president to enhance his personal prestige and to improve the morale of the Russian people. Being a world leader vastly improves national pride and confidence.
Putin’s prestige was so high that the American press kept insisting that he was the puppet master who had put Donald Trump in the White House. Those who were hawking this meme showed no similar concern when Putin made Barack Obama his bitch.
But then, after President Trump launched a missile attack on a Syrian air base—a reprisal for Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons— Putin lost his place as alpha male in the Middle East. Perhaps he did not see it coming. Perhaps he had not expected it. Perhaps he had imagined that Trump would be as cowardly as his predecessor.
And yet, from one day to the next, Putin was not acting as the grand master on the Middle Eastern chessboard; he was reacting.
Putin had lost some serious face. Such matters are of considerable consequence. People have gone to war to regain lost face. Thus, throughout the difficult meetings between American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a primary consideration was how the United States could allow Putin to save face.
Putin himself did meet with Tillerson for almost two hours, in a meeting that had not been pre-planned. Everyone must have known that the meeting could take place. Putin’s refusal to schedule it in advance allowed him to look like he was strong, as though he would not cave to pressure from the new American president.
Writing in Time Magazine Simon Shuster emphasized the point:
In the end, Vladimir Putin agreed to see the envoy from the Trump Administration. After a week of mutual recriminations over the war in Syria, the Russian President did not snub Rex Tillerson during the U.S. Secretary of State's first official visit to Moscow. Instead, Putin showed a willingness to grit his teeth and accept the U.S. attack against his ally in Syria--as long as Trump offered him a way to save face in the process.
How did Trump and Tillerson allow Putin to save face?
First, the Americans did not condemn Russia for the Sarin gas attack.
Second, Lavrov placed some of the blame for the bad relations on the Obama administration.
Third, they all insisted that relations between the two countries were bad, at their lowest level ever.
In addition, Shuster makes these important points:
Yet behind the escalating rhetoric, the two sides were both careful to leave room to smooth things over. The Kremlin stopped well short of countering the attack by military means. It did not use Russia's air defense systems in Syria to attempt to shoot down the U.S. cruise missiles, as it could have. Nor did Putin revoke his invitation to form a coalition with the U.S. against ISIS. For its part, the Trump Administration offered no clarity on how exactly it would seek to remove Assad; Trump himself insisted in the New York Post interview that "our big mission is getting rid of ISIS ... that's where it's always been." For the sake of that objective, they may still be willing to set aside their dispute over Assad.
Did you not find it strange that Tillerson and Trump insisted that relations between the two nations were very bad? Did it not seem slightly choreographed? They were saying that Putin had been tough and resolute, that he had refused to bow to American pressure. If relations had been pronounced to be very good, even cordial, that would have signaled Russian acquiescence to the new Middle Eastern order.
Tillerson and Trump were portraying relations in negative terms in order to save Putin’s face. This was especially important at a time when Trump had established a good relationship with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Trump’s successful meeting with Xi was an important diplomatic move on the world chessboard. Surely, Putin noticed. And just as surely, he understood that a rapprochement between Trump and Xi diminished his and Russia’s importance in the world.
One also notes, as a sidelight, that Putin had already had a relationship with Tillerson. The Russians trust Tillerson and they respect him. Thus, they must have felt that they could work with him. One ought not, while examining foreign policy issues, ignore the fact that people matter. Tillerson does not bring a great deal of experience in foreign policy to the table, but he does bring a considerable amount of earned respect. Putin respects Tillerson, in ways that he never respected Obama or Clinton or Kerry.
Compare and contrast. The Obama administration had sent Hillary Clinton with a plastic toy to “reset” relations between the countries. Lavrov dismissed her with contempt by stating out loud that her staff had gotten the Russian translation wrong. Hillary’s presence signified weakness and Russia was happy to take advantage.
The hapless John Kerry, a diplomat who was ever-too-avid to submit to the Iranians, should be known for the pathetic and embarrassing gesture of showing solidarity to France after the terrorist attack on the Bataclan. Kerry brought crooner James Taylor on stage to sing, in English: “You’ve got a friend.” It was humiliating for America. It was humiliating for France. It was so humiliating that people rarely speak of it. It showed the Russians that the American president and his chief diplomats had no self-respect—that is, did not care about their face.
Putin happily stepped forward to fill the leadership vacuum.
With Tillerson the situation has changed significantly. Tillerson is the strong, silent type. He is a man of few words, but of a stolid appearance. No emotion, no drama, clear, concise… Tillerson was there to do business, not to put on a show. Some people will be horrified, but Tillerson is a man’s man, the kind of man that a Putin would respect.
What is the Trump administration strategy? Simple, Tillerson himself explained it. The United States wants to undermine the alliance between Russia and Syria… because it complicates things in the Middle East. But, that was more likely a screen for the true goal… to undermine the relationship between Russia and Iran. Damascus is a waystation on the road to Tehran.
Undoing the damage wrought by the Obama administration, and its predecessors, is not going to happen in a fortnight. But, the Trump administration seems to have an idea of what it wants to accomplish and how it wants to go there.
Trump has seemed to change his mind about specific elements of his policy. Some of his supporters are caterwauling their disapproval. But, when it comes to enhancing American prestige on the world stage, making America a great power and great player again, he seems to be doing it. One challenge is to upset the Obamafied Middle East, without causing Vladimir Putin to lose face.
Simon Shuster offered some further analysis in Time:
… Tillerson arrived in Moscow with an ultimatum: abandon Assad or share responsibility for his crimes. Neither option would seem palatable to Putin, who is intent on projecting strength, especially in his frequent confrontations with the West. "The idea of retreat is not part of our President's constitution," says Alexander Konovalov, a foreign policy expert in Moscow. "So he will have to demonstrate toughness."
That need to act tough did not stop Putin from showing an openness--even an eagerness--to work with the U.S. during Tillerson's visit. While avoiding the media right after their talk, the Russian President left it to his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to announce that U.S.-Russia cooperation would "benefit not only our peoples but the entire world."