ENGRUS

Trump's Strikes on Syria a Big Hit in Caucasus

A U.S. warship launches Tomahawk missiles against targets in Syria on April 7. The strikes have been seen in the Caucasus as a sign of the Trump administration's resolve to stand up to Russia. (photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

The United States missile strikes on Syria have gladdened pro-Western hearts among in the Caucasus, where they have been seen as a sign that the new Trump administration is willing to act tough against Russia.

“I think what happened April 7 in Syria, the launching of the Tomahawk missiles, changed the situation very dramatically," said David Shahnazaryan, a senior analyst at the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center and a former senior Armenian security official. "The Kremlin now must be much more careful. Maybe this will slow down, a little bit, the possibility of another war" in the Caucasus, he said.

Shahnazaryan was speaking at the South Caucasus Security Forum, held April 20-21 in Tbilisi, a gathering of Atlanticist foreign policy wonks from around the region. The uncertain foreign policy of the Trump administration was, naturally, a running theme throughout the event. And if there had been any worries that Trump might be soft on Russia, the Syrian missile strikes appear to have dispelled them.

“We saw how lost and how frightened Russians were" after the strikes, said Nodar Kharshiladze, the founder of the Georgian Strategic Analysis Centre and a former deputy minister of both defense and internal affairs. "Yes, they [the Russians] will come up with something nasty, but the initial reaction, they were very confused, they simply didn't know what to do. That shows that, when it's done properly, deterrence works very well. They recognize force when they see it, and they recognize weakness when they see it.”

Another speaker, former Georgian ambassador to Washington Batu Kutelia, even saw traces of legendary cold warrior Ronald Reagan in Trump's emerging foreign policy. (This is high praise in Tbilisi, which features the only statue to Reagan in the former Soviet Union.)

"It is not just a mix of different, seemingly controversial statements, but quite a streamlined policy," he said.

Kutelia, now vice president at the Atlantic Council of Georgia, said he had tried with colleagues to work out a Trump foreign policy doctrine based on what he's said and done so far. “Strangely enough, it closely resembled National Security Decision Directive 75 of President Reagan. Whether Trump will be the new Reagan or not, history will be the judge.”

One such Reaganesque move was the Syrian strikes, Kutelia argued: The attack on the Syrian government was a piece of a Trump administration strategy deftly "turning the assets of an adversary into liabilities.” 

He argued further that as a result, Georgia's chances to join NATO -- on life support now for several years -- have been revived. "The Trump administration is the first since the end of the Cold War that didn't start with some kind of reset with Russia," he said. "Russia is now more of a primary threat than a possible partner. And that, combined with other U.S. national interests in Europe and globally, the possibility of Georgian NATO accession is much higher now."

The Bug Pit also spoke at the forum, and my take was different: I argued that the Syrian strikes were a symptom of Trump's obsession with presenting an image of toughness and decisiveness instead of evidence of any particular strategy or stance toward Russia. But I was in the minority.