It is no coincidence that president Donald Trump announced his plan to respond to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons with force on Monday– the same day that John Bolton assumed his new role as National Security Advisor.
Bolton, a former United States ambassador and Fox News commentator, is a staunch advocate for the use of military force to advance U.S. interests abroad, with regards to Russia and the Middle East in particular. With Bolton’s appointment came the departure of a number of key National Security Committee staff, leaving him to seize control of the administration’s foreign policy relatively unimpeded.
The Trump administration began preparing for a possible military strike against Syria on Monday in response to a suspected chemical-weapons attack that left at least 43 men, women, and children dead. Experts say Assad likely used a nerve agent to carry out the attack on a rebel stronghold in Douma, a suburb of Damascus.
Trump took aim not only at Assad, but at Russia for their support of the oppressive regime as well. He announced his intentions via Twitter, mentioning Russia’s “vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria,” and warning, “get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’”
The move will undoubtedly escalate tensions between the U.S. and Russia, and it represents a complete reversal in the administration’s foreign policy less than a week after president Trump announced his intention to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. It appears that, unlike former-president Barack Obama, Trump will cross the “red line in the sand,” using force to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons.
Keep in mind the Obama administration’s reasoning for not using force: a 2014 agreement between the U.S. and Russia, implemented by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), that promised to destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons.
According to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, “the first thing we have to look at is why are chemical weapons still being used at all when Russia was the framework guarantor of removing all the chemical weapons.”
So while president Trump is eager to flex his military muscle and punish Syria, taking a hard line to Obama’s diplomacy, Bolton, ever the opportunist, is taking advantage of of Trump’s quick trigger (read: Twitter) finger order to immediately implement his tough-on-Russia foreign policy.
Bolton has a record of refusing diplomacy with Russia, a policy which will inevitably lead to a rapid re-escalation to Cold-War-era tensions. In an interview with Fox News, Bolton asserted his position that Putin’s goal is to “make Russia into a great power again…and making Russia a bigger nuclear power again I think is part of his objective.”
By supporting the military strike on Syria, Bolton will succeed in attacking Russia by proxy, setting the precedent for a foreign policy that implicitly inflames tensions between the U.S. and Russia. The president has even acknowledged deteriorating diplomatic relations with Russia, suggesting that now is as good a time as ever to work toward a lasting solution.
In order to do so, the Trump administration must affirm its commitment to reaching a diplomatic resolution in Syria and, in the long-term, to increasingly hostile relations with Russia. A military response to the chemical-weapons attack in Douma will only exacerbate the current situation — Bolton’s aggressive, anti-Russia foreign policy must be checked in order to prevent the precarious state of affairs with the Kremlin from escalating even further.