Bashar al-Assad denies responsibility for chemical attack; Xi Jinping visiting Mar-a-Lago; Donald Trump diplomacy. By Hamish McDonald.

Putin’s allies dispute Syria link to St Petersburg bomber

A man carries the body of a dead child, following a suspected gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, this week.
A man carries the body of a dead child, following a suspected gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, this week.

Russian investigators blamed a suicide bomber from central Asia for an atrocity in a crowded metro carriage in St Petersburg on Monday, which killed at least 14 people and wounded more than 60.

To some it signalled a bitter blowback from Russia’s offensive in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia was quick in trying to dispel the link. “As far as the discussions by several media outlets that the terrorist act is a revenge for our Syria policy, this is cynical and despicable,” he said.

The alleged bomber, officials said, was Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, 22, an ethnic Uzbek from the conflict-torn Osh region of Kyrgyzstan, who had moved to St Petersburg in 2011 and taken Russian citizenship. It was not immediately clear how he was identified or his DNA detected on a second unexploded bomb placed at another metro station. Nor was his apparent radicalisation explained.

Just over a week earlier, opposition figure Alexei Navalny had shocked President Vladimir Putin’s government by calling out tens of thousands of people in anti-corruption protests in some 100 cities from St Petersburg to Vladivostok. Navalny’s supporters say Putin will use the metro bombing as an excuse to crack down even harder.

Assad reality check 

On Tuesday morning, aircraft dropped weapons on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, in Idlib province, in a region held by Sunni Islamist and secular opponents of Assad. Dozens of people, including many children, soon died writhing, choking, gasping for breath and foaming at the mouth from what appeared to be a nerve gas, probably sarin. Several who went to their aid also collapsed.

Assad’s government denied using the banned weapon, as it has previous reports that it used chlorine gas, after promising in 2014 it had surrendered all chemical weapons. Russia said a conventional bomb hit a rebel storage facility on the ground. 

Britain, France and the United States put a resolution to the United Nations Security Council calling on Assad to provide flight logbooks and names of commanders. Israel thinks Assad himself ordered the attack, reports said. A few days earlier Donald Trump had declared Assad a “reality” who had to be accepted. Now he says: “My attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much.”

The odd couple 

By the time you read this, we’ll be getting the immediate readout on what happened in the bizarre encounter between Trump and Chinese communist apparatchik Xi Jinping in the gilded setting of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

Some of the matters weighing on minds in Beijing, where your world editor has been in recent days, will have been cleared up, such as how would Comrade Xi spend his 25 hours there, given that as part of his corruption purge he would not be seen with a golf club in hand, and that even one hour would stretch Trump’s powers of coherent conversation.

More seriously, will Xi have been able to persuade Trump that US–China trade has more advantages to the US side than the $US347 billion deficit suggests? Avoiding a trade war was Xi’s top concern. He needs to keep up China’s high-growth track through the Communist Party’s five-yearly congress in October or November, where he’ll extend his leadership another five years and perhaps beyond. The risk of economic stagnation means China is in a “weak spot” now, says Shi Yinhong, director of American studies at Renmin (People’s) University in Beijing and a government adviser.

In the longer term, of course, Trump has given Xi the driver’s seat. He’s pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, cut budgets for diplomacy and aid, reduced contributions to the UN, International Monetary Fund and World Bank, lacks Barack Obama’s interest in South-East Asia, and vacated leadership on climate change. Xi now projects himself as tribune of free trade, and talks of a “China solution” for the world’s problems. But he won’t be mentioning any of this to Trump, encouraging him to think it’s still “America first”. 

Both sides prepared in tried and trusted ways. Trump tweeted the talks would be “very difficult” and that “we can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses”. After his many domestic debacles, Trump needed a Chinese takeaway. Talking wildly tough ahead of negotiations is straight from his book Trump: The Art of the Deal.

The Chinese figured the best way to soften up Trump was through deals, too. Officials unusually gave hurried approval to trademark protection requested by the Trump Organisation. Politically connected Anbang Insurance, whose chief executive is married to the late Deng Xiaoping’s granddaughter, offered $US400 million for the indebted Fifth Avenue project of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s family company, though mounting conflict-of-interest pressures obliged Kushner to turn it down two weeks ago. 

Alibaba’s Jack Ma, also close to party leaders, talked of creating a million American jobs by expanding US e-commerce into China. A big order for Boeing jets is another ritual, and Xi’s new speciality is splashing around offers of high-speed trains and other infrastructure. Trump will still be very reluctant to look cosy with China, says Yan Xuetong, dean of the international relations school at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. “It will be very superficial,” he said. On Wednesday Trump kicked alt-right doyen Steve Bannon off the National Security Council, raising hopes in China and elsewhere of normal politics being resumed.

Wrath and Kim 

Ahead of the election, Trump said he’d be willing to sit down and eat a hamburger with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Now he and his secretary of state Rex Tillerson have put less palatable options on the table, implicitly including a pre-emptive strike against Kim’s nuclear facilities.

This was also part of the foreplay. But as Tsinghua’s Yan pointed out, if Trump is serious he’d better strike while South Korea is under a caretaker leader, after Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. The new president from the May 9 election is likely to be Moon Jae-in, who is more conciliatory towards the North. “If the US makes this plan to bomb North Korea’s nuclear facilities before May 10, there’s not very much resistance from the South Koreans,” Yan said.

If so, what would China’s reaction be? “I don’t know. It’s top secret,” Yan said. “Personally I think it depends on what kind of military attack. If just connected to the nuclear facilities, I don’t think China will respond to that with military action. But if there is a war, that could be another story.”

Pyongyang’s reaction would be the more immediate worry, even if the strikes were extremely “surgical”. It’s always threatening all-out retaliation, and has artillery ranged against half of Seoul. Another North–South war could result. “In any situation, whenever and whatsoever, China will not permit American armed forces or South Korean forces in alliance with them, to enter into the northern part of the peninsula – no way,” said Renmin’s Shi Yinhong. “If this buffer zone is invaded, China could only send its own troops into this zone, or at least a large part of it.”

Beijing recently voted in the UN Security Council for tighter sanctions, and persuaded Russia to support them, too. Trump’s talk is aimed at an even harder squeeze. Shi doesn’t think it would work. “Even if we cut off their oil supply pipeline [a step widely regarded as China’s ultimate sanction], they will still not give up their nuclear weapons,” he said. 

But Beijing’s professions of zero influence in Pyongyang will be tested. The Americans don’t think it’s trying hard enough. Yan says there’s a gap between Beijing’s official policy, which is to call for a pause in North Korea’s testing and US–South Korean military exercises to enable a return to direct talks, and Chinese opinion. While the Chinese government sees little danger of war, public opinion views the risk as increasing and doubts the diplomatic approach has any prospect of working. “The old policy can’t achieve a new goal,” he said. Kim doesn’t seem worried: he’s was readying another nuclear test. In February, he timed a missile test for Trump’s sit-down for dinner at Mar-a-Lago with Japan’s Shinzō Abe.

Hamish McDonald travelled to China as guest of the UTS Australia–China Relations Institute and the Chinese People’s Association for Peace and Disarmament.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 8, 2017 as "Putin’s allies dispute Syria link to bomber".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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