Trump reinforces turnaround on Syria and Russia

President Trump at a Wednesday press conference reinforced the sense that his views on Syria and Russia are rapidly shifting.

Speaking alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump offered support for the Western military alliance, which he had previously criticized as obsolete.

He praised China for abstaining from a United Nations Security Council vote condemning what the U.S. and its allies say was a chemical weapons attack on civilians by Syria’s government, underlining Russia’s isolation. China typically sides with Russia on Security Council votes.

“I think it's wonderful that they abstained,” he said. “As you know, very few people expected that.” 

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And while he refrained from criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin directly, he said the U.S.-Russia relationship “may be at an all-time low” in the aftermath of last week’s U.S. missile strike on a Syrian airfield in response to the chemical attack.  

Asked if he thought Russia knew of the sarin nerve gas attack that the U.S. and its allies have pinned on Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose government has been facing armed opposition in a yearslong civil war, Trump hedged.

“I think it's certainly possible. I think it's probably unlikely,” he said. “I would like to think that they didn't know, but certainly they could have.”

Trump’s performance seems likely to reassure Western governments and much of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, which has been uneasy with Trump’s criticism of NATO and support for Putin — whom the U.S. president had praised as a stronger leader than his predecessor, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGeorge W. Bush honors father at benefit for hurricane victims Dem senator: ‘I miss every one of’ our last 5 presidents All five living former presidents appear at hurricane relief benefit concert MORE.

Trump has been signaling a more aggressive and antagonistic approach to Syria and Russia, Assad’s primary backer, since the chemical attack — moving away from his campaign promises to forge better ties with Moscow and to avoid U.S. military interventions in the Middle East. 

The president has repeatedly spoken of being moved by images of children and babies who were killed by the attack, and he used the sharpest language Wednesday to describe Assad and underline his decision to order last week’s missile strike.

“That's a butcher. That's a butcher. So I felt we had to do something about it. I have absolutely no doubt we did the right thing,” Trump said of Assad. 

The shifts in Trump’s actions and words have been rapid, and it seems clear that the administration’s strategy on Syria is still evolving.

There have been conflicting signals from administration officials over what actions by Syria might provoke another U.S. response, and the administration has yet to offer support for other forms of intervention, such as setting up a safe zone for civilians.

Trump has insisted that the U.S. will not be sending troops to Syria.

While last week’s strike has generally drawn bipartisan support, Democrats have sought to raise pressure on Trump to get specific with his strategy, and Republicans have called on the administration to work more closely with Congress.

Many of the administration’s steps on Syria have been more conventional in recent weeks.

Trump and his aides have made it clear that they are trying to isolate Russia on the world stage in an effort to persuade Putin to drop his support for Assad, a similar approach taken by Obama. 

At his press conference following the meeting with NATO’s secretary general, Trump said “it’d be a fantastic thing” if the two former Cold War foes were able to reconcile, but he warned that “it may not happen; it may be just the opposite.”

Trump left other clues that a detente with Moscow would be tough to achieve, however.

He confirmed the U.S. is investigating whether Russia had prior knowledge of the chemical attack, which left close to 90 people dead.

Russia has repeatedly said the attack could have been carried out by rebels or terrorist groups, prompting White House officials to accuse Moscow of carrying out a misinformation campaign to “cover up” the involvement of its closest Mideast ally. 

Separately, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who met with Putin in Moscow for two hours on Wednesday, said “there is a low level of trust between our two countries.”

Trump’s presidency has been shadowed by the intelligence community’s conclusions that Moscow meddled in last year’s presidential election to boost Trump.

The FBI is investigating whether there are links between Russia and Trump’s team, and separate probes are under way by the House and Senate Intelligence committees.

Trump’s comments about Russia and Putin have given ammunition to critics who think he has taken a soft line with Moscow.

In February, he defended Putin against his critics who called him a killer, saying in an interview with Fox News that “there are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?"

Tillerson also has faced criticism that he is too sympathetic toward Russia over his close relationship with Putin during his time as CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp. The secretary of State received Russia’s highest honor for a foreign national from Putin in 2013. 

But the military action against Syria has put Trump and Putin at odds, raising the chances of new conflicts between Moscow and Washington.