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On March 30, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson commented during a trip to Turkey, that the long-term status of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would be “decided by the Syrian people”. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN reiterated his point on the same day: “Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” she said.
A week later, 59 Tomahawk missiles were flying at the Shayrat Syrian army base. US President Donald Trump had seemingly undergone a change of heart — and pictures of “beautiful little babies” dying from chemical gas poisoning — allegedly at the hands of Assad — were supposedly the catalyst.
The hawkish foreign policy establishment applauded the decision. Politicians on both sides of the aisle suspended weeks of Trump-bashing to laud the president’s newfound smarts — and the media enthusiastically swallowed the line that Trump had experienced some kind of moral rebirth. One media criticism website, Fair.org, noted that five major American newspapers ran a total of 18 op-eds all of which were written in support of the strike. No space was given to those opposed to the military action.
In short, it was an embarrassment for all involved.
Despite warnings from many experts that Assad may not have deliberately used chemical weapons — that in fact he may have hit a warehouse where rebels were storing nerve agents — the media has refused to even acknowledge that more than one possibility exists.
But what does the strike mean for US-Russia relations? What is Trump’s plan going forward? And how long will the media’s new love affair with the president last?
If we leave aside the clearly bogus claim that this strike was about Trump’s heart and American values, Trump’s real motives become clearer.
First, the Shayrat strike garnered Trump immediate bipartisan support. Looking at the headlines in the days following the attack, it’s clear that Trump has not been this all-round popular at any point during his presidency so far. Op-ed pages across most major publications were brimming with praise. News anchors could barely contain their joy as they showed images of American missiles flying through the night sky. Finally, the ‘non-interventionist’ president they hated so much had changed his mind; now he was one of them.Second, Trump had been under serious pressure to quell suspicions over his ties to Russia. Striking Assad’s base gave Trump the opportunity to send the message that he was willing to stand in opposition to both Assad and Vladimir Putin.
Third, Trump has spent a lot of time talking about the weakness of his predecessor Barack Obama. One area where the two men appeared to agree — at least before Trump took office — was on the decision not to attack Assad in Syria. Trump spent years warning that attacking Syria would not be in the US’s best interests. In his statement following the chemical weapons incident in Idlib, however, Trump inexplicably claimed it was in fact Obama’s “inaction” that had been the problem all along. Striking the Syrian base was an opportunity for an impulsive president to prove his strength; to prove that he is a “do something” kind of guy.
Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much enthusiasm for the strike in Moscow. Putin called it a violation of international law — but the bulk of the criticism came from prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, which many have interpreted as a sign that the Kremlin is not perhaps as bothered as might have been expected.
There have been mutterings among others that the Kremlin is in fact sorely disappointed in Trump; that they thought he would be somehow “different” than his predecessors. Many who bought into the conspiracy theory that Putin was behind Trump’s election are talking of “buyer’s remorse” — but in reality, the Kremlin was always wary of Trump’s unpredictability, opting to reserve judgement until his actions reflected his words — and while they may not have expected his actions to divert from his words quite this quickly, they’re probably not crying into their cornflakes over it.
Militarily, Russia will seek to de-escalate the situation rather than rush in guns blazing. Moscow possessed the capacity to shoot down the American missiles but did not. In the aftermath, however, Russia pledged to strengthen Assad’s air defenses and suspended its flight safety memorandum with the US. The message the Kremlin is sending is simple: We didn’t target your missiles this time, but we can if we want to.
But just because the goal is to de-escalate, doesn’t mean the danger subsides. Trump’s strike significantly increases the risk of serious future conflict with Russia. What happens between Moscow and Washington now will depend on Trump’s future moves, which at this point, are anyone’s guess.
Where Trump goes next
A common reaction from anti-interventionists and skeptics, is that Trump’s attack on Syria proves that he has surrendered to a deep state which is intent on war. The fundamental flaw in that argument is that it assumes Trump ever had his own foreign policy to begin with. Just like a slew of other issues on which Trump has done a 180, foreign policy is no different. He will do what makes him popular and is politically convenient.
The Trump administration has played down the idea that this strike signals the beginning of a wider military campaign to oust Assad. At the same time, however, Haley told the UN Security Council on Friday that the US is “prepared to do more” if necessary. — and on Saturday, she told the council that the US does not see an end to the conflict in Syria until Assad is removed from power. It’s a shockingly fast turnaround from her comments last week.
The major downside — and it’s one which Trump may not have realized yet — is that he has painted himself into a corner. He has opened himself up to blackmail. He has set the precedent that he will respond to the use of chemical weapons — a dangerous message to send to the various anti-Assad factions, many of which are linked to Al Qaeda and nearly all of which support a jihadi agenda in Syria. What’s to say these groups won’t now begin to stage chemical attacks and then call on the White House to act?
If Trump refuses, he will be derided by the media and political establishment for going weak. Even if Assad really was responsible for the chemical weapons attack which prompted Trump’s action, the rebels have been taught a dangerous lesson.
On the other hand, if Trump does react similarly to any further chemical attacks, he risks getting bogged down in a war he promised not to start — not to mention a further deterioration in relations with Russia; another thing he had promised to avoid.
Guided primarily by his ego and political expediency, Trump has opted for a short-term popularity bump which could turn into a long-term nightmare.