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After Trump's Syria Strikes, Russia Warns Of Iraq Redux, Conspiracies

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a statement late on July 6 in Florida announcing missile strikes against Syria in retaliation for a suspected chemical-weapons attack by regime forces.
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a statement late on July 6 in Florida announcing missile strikes against Syria in retaliation for a suspected chemical-weapons attack by regime forces.

Hours after the United States struck a Syrian air base with a barrage of cruise missiles on April 7, Russian officials and Kremlin surrogates homed in on U.S. President Donald Trump's stated opposition to the Middle East military interventions of his predecessors.

As President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin denounced Washington's "aggression" against its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian state media, lawmakers, and Kremlin loyalists fanned out to warn that Trump was repeating the mistakes of George W. Bush and Barack Obama in Iraq and Libya, respectively.

"In the 21st century, each U.S. president has had his own war in the Middle East, sometimes two," Aleksei Pushkov, a prominent foreign policy voice in Russia's upper house of parliament, wrote on Twitter. "If Trump goes into Syria, he will stand side-by-side with Bush and Obama."​

Throughout last year's presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly denounced Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq and Obama's 2011 decision to intervene militarily in Libya as part of a NATO-led operation, both of which were supported at the time by his Democratic opponent in the race, Hillary Clinton.

Trump has also vowed to end "our current strategy of nation-building and regime change," a pledge that echoed Russia's critical view of U.S. intervention abroad, and to "stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about."

In a televised statement late on April 6, Trump said the Syria operation was "in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons" that Assad used in violation of international law, he said.

WATCH: Russia Slams 'Thoughtless' U.S. Strikes On Syria

Russia Slams 'Thoughtless' U.S. Strikes On Syria
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Leonid Slutsky, the head of the international affairs committee in Russia's lower house of parliament, said the attack on the Syrian base shows that Washington "is ready to overthrow President Assad's regime at any price."

Slutsky likened Trump's justification for the missile strikes -- namely, a suspected chemical-weapons attack against Syrian civilians this week that Washington blames on Assad -- to former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's 2003 argument for the Iraq intervention based on false claims that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction.

"Apparently, the United States did not learn its lesson from the Iraq campaign, in which weapons of mass destruction were ultimately never found," Slutsky was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as saying. "And the methods of the American political elite to remove rogue regimes remains the same."

Conspiracy Theories

Other prominent voices in Russia's political establishment hinted at a kind of deep-state conspiracy to force Trump to back regime change in Syria one week after Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said that "our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out."

"You got the impression that neither people in the Pentagon nor in the intelligence services agreed with this message, and Trump was immediately placed against the wall of 'irrefutable evidence,'" Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's upper house of parliament, wrote on Facebook in a reference to Powell's 2003 speech in the UN.

Sergei Markov, a prominent Kremlin-connected political analyst known for positing conspiracy theories, said that this week's deadly chemical attack was "most likely" organized by "American agents," the Al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as the Al-Nusra Front, and the search-and-rescue group known as the White Helmets.

This alleged conspiracy was a trap set by Trump's "domestic enemies," Markov claimed in a short blog post. He provided no evidence for the claim.

Russian state television weighed in with references to previous U.S. military interventions, as well. While Washington received support for the Syria strikes from Britain, France, and Japan, among other countries, the Rossia network stressed the operation was "not agreed upon with the international community and had no UN mandate."

"The unilateral night action was in the spirit of attacks on Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya," a Rossia reporter said, referring to the 1999 NATO-led military intervention in Yugoslavia that was fiercely opposed by Moscow.

Rossia also posted a screen grab of a Trump tweet from 2013 in which he told Obama: "DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA -- IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN."

The other leading state-run network, Channel One, said in a report that "it's clear that this act of aggression by the States was carried out before they even got around to making sense of the situation."

Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump said repeatedly that he would like to improve bilateral ties with Russia that have been badly strained over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. Trump has highlighted the prospects of teaming up with Moscow to fight Islamic State militants in the region.

Those overtures were greeted with optimism in Moscow, which wants Washington to lift its sanctions on Moscow over Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine.

So far, the Trump administration has shown no signs that it is backing down on the sanctions, maintaining the policy inherited from Obama that insists on the return of Crimea and demands that Moscow halt "destabilizing" actions in eastern Ukraine.

At least one well-known Kremlin opponent criticized Trump's action in Syria, as well. Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister and leader of the opposition Democratic Choice party, wrote on Twitter that Trump is conducting "PR air strikes" with "no particular strategy."

He likened the operation to U.S. air strikes ordered in the 1990s by President Bill Clinton in Afghanistan and Sudan.

"There's still no solution to the Assad problem," Milov wrote.

'He Bombed Someone Somewhere!'

Following Trump's election, Russian state television frequently defended Trump against his domestic political opponents and U.S. media reports, most notably in connection with what U.S. intelligence calls a Kremlin-directed hacking and propaganda campaign to help Trump defeat Clinton. (Russia denies the allegation.)

Following the April 7 missile strikes on the Syrian base, the editor in chief of Russia's state-controlled international network RT tweeted that "for the first time in six months, the American media is writing positively about Trump."

"He bombed someone somewhere! Whew, they exhaled with relief," Margarita Simonyan wrote.

She subsequently tweeted that the United States had "spectacularly f@cked up" chances for a rapprochement between Washington and Moscow.

The well-known Russian photographer Ilya Varlamov reminded his 260,000 followers of Simonyan's tweet the day after Trump's election, in which she said she wanted to "drive around Moscow with an American flag in the car window."

On the morning of election day, when Clinton was widely expected to defeat Trump, Simonyan had tweeted: "Democracy. RIP."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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