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Wall Street Journal / News - Politics

The Art of the Handshake: How Trump’s Syria Alliance Came Together

The three-country coalition that launched airstrikes in Syria came together despite persistent trans-Atlantic tensions—a period of unity made possible, White House officials said, because of good relations between the U.S. and French presidents and an alliance with the U.K. against Russia.

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed President Donald Trump in Paris on July 13 for Bastille Day celebrations.

WASHINGTON—The three-country coalition that launched airstrikes in Syria came together despite persistent trans-Atlantic tensions—a period of unity made possible, White House officials said, because of good relations between the U.S. and French presidents and an alliance against Russia that eased strains with the U.K.

The coalition was rooted in the shared goal of ending the use of chemical weapons in Syria. French President Emmanuel Macron was the first of the three countries’ leaders to lean publicly in to a military response after the alleged chemical attack this month that leaders from the three countries blamed on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The coalition was also made possible by President Donald Trump’s joining with British Prime Minister Theresa May last month to expel Russian diplomats from their countries in response to the poisoning in the U.K. of a former Russian spy, White House officials said. The expulsion didn’t have a direct link to the Syrian conflict, but gave the two countries a chance to repair a frayed alliance, they said.

White House officials said Mr. Trump’s unilateral decision a year ago to launch missiles in Syria, also in response to a chemical weapons attack, gave allies the resolve to join the military response last week.

“Once the president showed his resolve to act in the wake of the attack last year, the calls from our allies were, ‘Thank you—finally someone is doing something,’” a senior White House official said. “That very quickly turned into, ‘Let’s solve this problem together.’ ”

The U.S.-U.K. “special relationship” had been tested by a public dispute about Mr. Trump’s retweets of an anti-Islam group leader’s videos, and his criticism of London Mayor Sadiq Khan for saying there was “no reason to be alarmed” after a group of terrorists attacked pedestrians on the London Bridge in June 2017.

While Ms. May was the first foreign leader to visit Mr. Trump after his inauguration, the U.S. president has yet to travel England. Mr. Trump in January canceled a proposed February trip to London, saying he objected to the new location of the U.S. Embassy that was selected by the Obama administration.

Tensions eased in recent weeks, White House officials said. The poisoning of the former Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K., which Western leaders said was carried out by Moscow, led to the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats from the U.S.—the largest by the U.S. since the Cold War. The ejections gave the allies a framework upon which to build cooperation.

“That played a big role,” a White House official said. “All the other issues people raise are put to rest when things are running smoothly, and the two countries can assume their historical roles.”

With Mr. Macron, the relationship stems in part from Mr. Trump’s premium on personal diplomacy with world leaders.

While Mr. Trump is often criticized for his praise of controversial leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the prime time TV star-turned-president also has developed relationships with a younger generation of leaders, including Mr. Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, White House officials said.

“You have to look the part, and act the part for President Trump,” one administration official said. “Trudeau and Macron are both good looking, and have strong visions for their country. The president doesn’t like lukewarm; he likes charisma and vitality and strength.”

Still, some officials didn’t expect the Macron relationship to develop as it has in the past year. Mr. Trump voiced support for Marine Le Pen, another contender for the French presidency who was more aligned with Mr. Trump’s brand of populism.

After Mr. Macron said in a television interview Sunday that he had convinced Mr. Trump to remain in Syria “long-term,” the White House said in response that the president still aims to withdraw troops “as quickly as possible.”

Instead of bonding over golf, as Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has done with Mr. Trump, Mr. Macron, who doesn’t play the sport, found common ground over a forceful handshake and similar political paths, French and U.S. officials said.

As with Mr. Trump’s win in 2016, few polls predicted Mr. Macron’s victory the following May, and the pair shared an antiestablishment message. While Mr. Macron has hewed more to the political middle, both have been disrupting forces in their capitals.

Their body language during Mr. Trump’s visit to Paris last July convinced White House officials that a strong relationship would unfold. Mr. Macron rolled out the red carpet during a weekend of military parades and a dinner in the Eiffel Tower for the two leaders and their wives.

That trip was sealed by Mr. Macron’s encouragement.

Shortly before the Bastille Day celebration in France, Mr. Macron expressed regret in a phone call with Mr. Trump that the U.S. president wouldn’t attend his country’s holiday, a display of military strength and national pride, according to a person familiar with the call.

Mr. Trump, concerned about protests that shadow him around the globe, said he didn’t want his presence at the parade to embarrass his newly elected counterpart. Mr. Macron objected, saying he’d be proud to host the American president.

Mr. Trump was convinced. “OK,” he said, “I’m coming,” a U.S. official said.

The president was effusive in his appreciation, telling Mr. Macron during a bilateral meeting later at the United Nations how much the dinner meant to him, an administration official said.

“It’s something that has turned into an asset,” another senior administration official said about the Trump-Macron relationship.

Mr. Trump, who has become known for his aggressive handshake style had a memorable interaction with Mr. Macron in Brussels in May 2017, when Mr. Trump’s hands looked red and his knuckles turned white as the two men clasped hands.

“Trump likes winners, and that has helped his friendship with Macron,” a French official said.

A view of the Syrian Scientific Research Center after it was hit by U.S., U.K. and French military strikes.

U.S. officials credit Mr. Macron for investing time with Mr. Trump. He is among the most frequent callers to the White House. While his discussions with Mr. Trump involve international affairs, the calls tend to meander into other banter and chitchat, White House officials said.

Some White House officials were perturbed last year when Mr. Macron helped convince Mr. Trump to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, telling the U.S. president that it was an ideal platform to present his vision to the world.

Inside the White House, senior advisers, including White House chief of staff John Kelly and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, urged the president to skip the summit. The advisers wanted to stay in Washington to focus on the State of the Union speech scheduled days later.

“Macron’s urging was one of the primary reasons—if not the primary reason—the president went to Davos,” said a person familiar with the planning. “He told the president how great it would be, and how much he’d love it. And because of his experience at Bastille Day, he trusted Macron’s judgment.”