Where former US President Barack Obama hesitated when the Syrian regime crossed his “red lines,” current President Donald Trump took swift military action in the aftermath of the Syrian chemical bombing of the rebel-held town Khan Sheikhoun which for Trump “crossed a lot of lines,” leaving 80 dead and hundreds more injured.
The 59 Tomahawk strikes on the Shayrat airbase near Homs, which the US believes was used to orchestrate the nerve agent attacks, was defended by Trump as a “vital national security interest” of the US, as Washington vowed they could yet do more.
The US’ new willingness to take action adds an unprecedented dimension to the already complicated Syrian civil war. However, will the US action hasten diplomatic initiatives to end the war or will it drive Syria into a deeper conflict?
Trump, whose campaign was on a US-first and anti-interventionist basis, showed the unpredictable style of his presidency as he took action without seeking permission from Congress or his allies, with knowledge it would damage the warmer ties he hoped to foster with Russia.
The primary purpose of this proportionate response was to deter Damascus from further chemical attacks, something Obama believed he achieved with the last-minute deal brokered by Russia in 2013 to dispose of Syria’s chemical stockpiles after the regime launched a deadly chemical attack in Gouta.
It also served as a warning Trump was willing to change his position quickly based on unfolding events, and, at the same time, remind the likes of Iran and North Korea the US remained a major global player who was not afraid to intervene if required.
Western powers backed the US’ military response, but they also received broad support from the Democrat-Republican line.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande issued a joint statement highlighting that after repeating the chemical attack of 2013, “President [Bashar al-Assad] alone bears the responsibility for this development.”
Meanwhile, UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, echoing the similar sentiment from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, blamed Russia as the key backer of Assad responsible “by proxy” for “every civilian death” that resulted from the chemical attack.
The dramatic turnaround in fortunes in recent months for the Assad regime is directly owed to Russian military intervention in 2015 which led to the recapture of swaths of territory, including Aleppo.
The US military response may give the fading opposition renewed hope, but US policy on Syria remains incoherent.
Whether the US strikes change Assad’s calculus or willingness to negotiate a political settlement depends if US action proves a one-off. It also depends on if the Americans are willing to take steps to significantly bolster the fragmented opposition or take radical steps such as the creation of US enforced safe-zones.
However, Assad’s stance will be largely dependent on Russia, who remains the key component of how the six-year Syrian civil war will play out.
It came as no response Russia strongly condemned the US strikes on the Syrian airbase. Russia accused the US of encouraging “terrorists” with actions they deemed as “unilateral” and an “act of aggression,” as they vowed to bolster Syrian air defenses and mobilized a warship to confront US naval positions in the Mediterranean Sea.
Denouncing the strikes as illegal, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev went as far as warning the strikes were “one step away from military clashes with Russia.”
Moreover, a statement from a joint command center, comprised of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, threatened to “respond with force” if their red-lines were crossed.
The greatest challenge of the G7 nations remains to change Russia’s stance on Syria, whether through sanctions or diplomacy.
But, with every Western rhetoric denouncing Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war, or any threat of further US military action in Syria, Moscow’s position becomes more entrenched.
The contradictory claims emanating from US officials on their priority in Syria or stance on Assad does not help matters.
A week before the chemical attacks, Washington had publicly stated the removal of Assad was no longer a priority, but this seemingly changed after the chemical bombing.
However, in recent days, Trump stressed the priority remained to defeat the Islamic State (IS), and Washington was “not going into” Syria’s civil war.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the US of “very ambiguous” and “contradictory ideas.”
With an unclear US policy, a seeming lack of hunger to be drawn military into Syria, and growing friction with Russia, the past week’s events make a political solution in Syria all the more difficult.
Either way, for Trump, military action now sets a precedence. If Assad launches another chemical attack, will he be willing to escalate military action and a potential stand-off with Russia or risk appearing weak?
First Published: Kurdistan 24