Trump sides with Putin after Russia bombing
After Monday’s deadly attack in St Petersburg, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin vowed to focus on fighting terrorism together. But is the Russian president really a friend of America?
“There was a bang, and dust,” recalled the train conductor. On the subway platform outside, stunned passengers struggled to understand what would later become clear: their train had been struck by a suicide bomber.
Monday’s attack in St Petersburg, which killed 14 and wounded 64, brought back bad memories. Russia’s main cities were once regular targets for Islamist terrorists, but they had gone six years without a major incident. Their run seems to be over.
Russian authorities identified the bomber as Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, a 22-year-old Russian born in Kyrgyzstan. Officials are describing the attack as an act of terrorism. While no group has yet claimed responsibility, many suspect Islamic State (IS), which has repeatedly vowed to strike Russia since the country began assisting Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria in 2015.
After the attack Donald Trump called Vladimir Putin; the two presidents affirmed their desire to fight terrorism together. The same day, the US ambassador to the UN announced that her government is no longer focused on removing Assad. Whereas Barack Obama supported moderate rebels fighting Assad’s regime, his successor insists that closer cooperation with Russia is the only way to defeat IS.
It is not clear what this would mean. Trump has promised to “bomb the hell” out of IS, and suggested that he is open to joining Russia in launching air strikes on the group. Some analysts who saw Obama as too passive welcome this change of direction. But others question its logic.
One problem is the Assad regime, which has committed atrocities of its own. Just yesterday, it apparently launched a chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians — including children — in Idlib province.
Another is Russia itself. While Trump praises Putin, his advisers warn that the man cannot be trusted. His invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and his strikes on civilian targets in Syria cast doubt on his commitment to international law. In February, the US defence secretary, James Mattis, warned that Russia will have “to prove itself” before the two nations can cooperate.
Those advisers are right, say some. Putin is a liar. He violates ceasefires. He pretends to fight IS while actually striking anyone who opposes his friend Assad. Whatever he might say, his priorities don’t align with ours: he only wants to extend Russian influence in the Middle East. Don’t help him.
How cynical, reply others. The attack in St Petersburg shows that Russia is as vulnerable to terrorism as we are. We all want IS gone, but that will only happen if a stable, peaceful regime can control Syria. For better or worse, that cannot be achieved without Russia’s help. We had better start talking.
- Are you worried about the threat from Islamic State?
- Which approach to the Syrian conflict is better: that of Obama or Trump?
- Without looking them up, write a definition of the following words: terrorism, jihad, Islam, Islamism. Compare your answers with your classmates’ versions. What are the differences between the words’ meanings?
- Draw a timeline of the Syrian conflict to date, marking on the ten most significant moments. For each one, write a few sentences explaining what happened.
Some People Say...
“The best weapon against an enemy is another enemy.”— Friedrich Nietzsche
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Russian authorities said that Dzhalilov detonated the bomb, appearing to kill himself in the process. A second bomb was found and defused in another station. Dzhalilov became a Russian citizen in 2011 and had been working as a car mechanic in St Petersburg.
- What do we not know?
- The bomber’s motive. He made no statement before the attack, and no group has claimed responsibility for it. Some media outlets are running unconfirmed reports that two other Central Asians were involved.
- What do people believe?
- Fingers are pointing at Islamist terrorism; Dzhalilov’s social media profile contains a link to Islamic website Tawba. One acquaintance quoted in The New York Times said that he returned from a trip to Kyrgyzstan “sullen and withdrawn,” and may have been radicalized then.
- Islamist terrorists
- These tended to hail from Russia’s Muslim-majority provinces, notably Chechnya.
- One of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, which are predominantly Muslim. Citizens of these countries often go to work in Russia, where many are targeted by Islamists seeking new recruits.
- The White House called the attack “heinous,” but blamed it on Obama’s “weakness and irresolution”.
- Idlib province
- One of the few regions still under rebel control. The Assad regime has used chemical weapons in the past, though it denies this.
- Civilian targets
- During the bombardment of Aleppo in 2016, there were widespread reports that Russian and Syrian jets targeted civilian areas.
- Violates ceasefires
- In September, Russia and the USA agreed on a ceasefire that paved the way for joint air strikes. It collapsed within a month; each side blamed the other. See The New Yorker’s article in Become An Expert.
- According to the US government, in the first few weeks of Russia’s intervention in Syria, under 10% of its strikes hit areas controlled by IS or al-Qaeda.