Time to Show Russia a Military Parade—In Syria
“We’ll always have Paris,” Humphrey Bogart’s Rick tells his old flame Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman, in the 1942 classic, Casablanca. But President Donald J. Trump wants a piece of the action too. Returning from the City of Lights last summer, Trump had an epiphany. “I want a parade like the one in France,” he announced to the Pentagon a few months later.
After last Saturday morning’s strike in Syria, benign processions of Western military hardware are now the last thing on anyone’s mind. The combined forces of the United States, UK and France launched over one hundred missiles at targets connected to President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons program. One could be forgiven for assuming that this was Trump’s parting shot from the Syrian theater—having already pledged to bring home American troops stationed there—save the claim of French president Emmanuel Macron that he has convinced Trump to remain there for the longer haul.
We’ve come a long way since 2003, when the House of Representatives cafeteria started serving Freedom Fries after France opposed U.S. plans to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Now, it’s the Elysée Palace goading the White House to stick to its guns against Bashar Assad. One thing remains constant, however: the villain in the script is a stooge for President Vladimir Putin.
The Cold War is playing to sell-out crowds again. Putin’s audacious campaign to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election was just the trailer. Last month, almost thirty countries expelled Russian diplomats when the Kremlin was implicated directly in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former GRU officer turned double agent, and his daughter in the south of England. Moscow retaliated in kind, sending their foreign envoys packing.
But nowhere are Russia’s footsteps more pronounced today than in the Middle East, its old Soviet stomping grounds, where the locals are increasingly deferential to Putin. Just prior to visiting Moscow in July, Iraqi vice president Nouri al-Maliki told an RIA Novosti interviewer that, “if it wasn't for Russia, the region would have been totally destroyed.” Addressing a Valdai Club conference in the Russian capital in February, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Zarif lauded Tehran’s “growing, strategic partnership with the Russian Federation, which stems from our common principles, interests and concerns.”
Damascus is the star in the current run of the Russian circus. Iran has invested billions to keep Assad in business, but Putin is the ayatollahs’ enabler. Casting doubt over the deployment of chemical weapons in Douma, Russia’s president accused the United States and its European partners to the weekend’s attack of “cynical disdain.” His foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, claimed on Friday to have “irrefutable evidence” that the charges against Assad were fabricated by “the special services of the state which is eager to be in the front ranks of the anti-Russia campaign.” Moscow scrambled fighter jets promptly to defend Syrian skies against the possibility of further aggression by the “criminals,” as Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei referred to Trump, Macron and British prime minister Theresa May.