While the barrage of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that slammed into Syria’s al-Shayrat airfield represented the US’s iron fist, Trump’s subsequent actions have been its velvet glove.
As a succession of Russian officials paraded their anger before the world media’s and accused the US of aligning itself with ISIS, Trump has taken no further military action or given any indication of short-term plans to do so.
Unlikely as it seems for a man so given to bragging, he has even maintained what in anyone else would be called a dignified silence as he hosts China’s president Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
Meanwhile administration and Pentagon officials have been at pains to let it be known that a long-established back channel for communication between Russia and US forces operating in and over Syria remains active and is “more important than ever”.
The private hotline allows military commanders to share details of their operations and has stopped Russia and the US accidentally coming to blows ever since President Barack Obama first inserted US warplanes and combat advisers.
That is the scene playing out in public.
Behind the public statements and posturing, experts and US foreign policy gurus agree, the superpowers will be pushing the re-set button on a relationship whose public face has not been so fraught with tension since the Cold War.
And hard as it is to believe, given the heated rhetoric and calls for an emergency Security Council meeting, those same tensions might represent the best chance to bring something resembling peace to Syria after six years of horrendous civil war and an estimated 500,000 deaths.
If so, it will work like this:
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson heads to Moscow next week for talks with Kremlin opposite number Sergey Lavrov – a parley foreign policy experts say will see the US envoy privately but emphatically repeat Trump’s public call on Russia to abandon its support for President Bashar al-Assad.
And surprisingly, those same experts rate that request as having a fair chance of being accepted, albeit not in any public way that might make it appear Moscow is bowing to US pressure.
They argue that Lavrov and his boss, President Vladimir Putin, will accept what they must already know – that Assad’s reputation as a tyrant and butcher is now so foul there is nothing to be gained by leaving him in power.
Indeed, there is much to lose, as Russia’s support for the Assad clan is inspired in large part by its absolute determination to see that the Russian flag continues to fly over the naval port it maintains on the Syrian coast at Tartus.
Putin & Co will now be weighing a cold-blooded calculation: while Assad can protect the port that projects Russian naval power into the heart of the Mediterranean, what can protect the dictator from Trump’s missiles and the weight of world opinion?
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull captured that sentiment yesterday in a few words.
“I have grave doubts as to whether [Assad] can have any continuing role in the settlement. The crimes he has committed against his own people are so enormous,” he said.
“His actions, his horrendous, criminal actions, gassing women and children, babies, that surely disqualifies him from a continuing role.”
There is a Russian saying from the Soviet era that maintains ‘friends are those who have not yet betrayed you’. Assad may well find his fate is the confirmation of that wisdom as Russia casts about for another, more acceptable strongman to protect its interests.
Indeed there were hints that Russian support was waning even before Mr Trump flung his Tomahawks at the air base believed to have been the home base of the planes that conducted the chemical attack.
On Thursday, less than 24 hours before the US blitz, a Kremlin spokesman told the Associated Press that “unconditional support” for Assad “is not possible in this current world”.
As foreign policy specialist Krishnadev Calamur noted in The Atlantic magazine, “most of the moderate rebel groups are engaged in a fragile cease-fire with Assad, brokered by Russia, Iran, and Turkey”.
“ISIS- and al-Qaeda-linked groups aren’t part of the truce. The Free Syrian Army, which is part of the cease-fire, called the strikes ‘welcome news’.”
A replacement for Assad, the thinking goes, might just be enough to see the war-weary moderates begin to negotiate a more permanent and stable ceasefire with a new regime, freeing whoever next rules in Damascus to bring the full weight of its own and Russian military power to bear on ISIS.
– with AAP