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Raising the Syria stakes

Donald Trump has reversed his isolationist stance with the missile attack, but Syrian ground realities remain the same

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to order a cruise missile attack on the Syrian regime on April 6, two days after a town in the rebel-held Idlib province was hit by chemical weapons, has earned him praise even from his strongest critics. The President’s supporters could now defend him better against accusations of him being a “Russian stooge”. But beyond the domestic political dividends, what did Mr. Trump’s Syria strike actually achieve in strategic terms?

Logic behind intervention

The popular narrative in the American media is that the President, apparently moved by the gruesome images of “beautiful babies” killed by the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun, has acted on his impulse. He immediately blamed Bashar al-Assad for the gas attack, which he said changed his views of the Syrian President. But Presidents don’t take go to war on an impulse, unless they are pushing their nations into a self-destructive mode. In Mr. Trump’s case, he had stood opposed to military intervention even when a worse chemical attack occurred in Syria. And the high moral ground the administration is now taking over the civilian deaths also appears to be hollow. Weeks before the Khan Shaykhun attack, hundreds of civilians were killed in Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa, both by U.S. jets. So beyond the emotional appeal, there has to be a strategic calculus behind decisions to use force, and more so in the case of Syria where the central military force is currently Russia.

Mr. Trump over the last couple of weeks has clearly moved to the globalist wing of the Washington establishment, leaving his campaign rhetoric behind. He’s demoted Steve Bannon, one of the most potent opponents of the globalists, embraced NATO, warmed up to China, and stepped up anti-Russia rhetoric. The Syria strike should be seen as part of this larger trend. For the past three years, interventionists in Washington, both liberal internationalists and neoconservatives, repeatedly called for a “limited action” in Syria, which they said wouldn’t necessarily escalate military tensions between the U.S. and Russia, while at the same time help Washington win back its anti-Assad allies in West Asia who were disappointed with President Barack Obama’s Iran détente. Mr. Trump appears to have played ball with them.

The Syrian matrix

But the real risk is that once America enters a battlefield, as the examples at least since Vietnam show, it doesn’t get out of it easily. Mr. Trump may have been able to send out a message that he’s ready to act. But the problem with limited attacks is that those are tactical actions that leave the balance of power on the ground intact while altering the overall political atmosphere drastically.

The same holds true for Syria. The U.S. strike won’t have any drastic impact on the civil war, while the Moscow-Washington reset is already dead. On the other side, the strike has cemented the Moscow-Damascus alliance further. In an act of defiance, Syrian air force jets took off from the airbase hit by American missiles the next day to bomb Islamic State locations in the Homs countryside, while Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent a warship to the Mediterranean. The icy welcome offered to U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson in Moscow on Wednesday underscores the Russian fury, which has thrown the possibility of any future Russian-U.S. cooperation in finding a political solution to the Syrian war into jeopardy.

What will Mr. Trump do next? The conflicting statements being issued by the officials show that he lacks a coherent strategy on Syria or the administration is ill-prepared to deal with the political consequences of the strike. The failure of G7 at its Lucca summit early this week to reach a consensus on more sanctions against Russia over its Syria support shows even America’s European allies are divided.

The cold fact is that Mr. Assad is still winning the war and in all likelihood, the Syrian army will continue to retake territories from the rebels with Russian help. Now that he has already raised the bar, Mr. Trump will come under increased pressure, both from the interventionist lobby at home and allies in West Asia, to act again. He could either use diplomatic means — in Syria’s case, seek Russian help — for a negotiated settlement between the regime and the rebels or go for a full-blown attack. If he chooses the former, the moral argument Washington has built against “Assad the evil dictator” would crumble besides disappointing allies, and if he picks the latter, it would spawn a much more disastrous war with the U.S. and Russia standing up to each other. This is the dilemma the reckless Syria strike has taken Mr. Trump to.

stanly.johny@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 3:28:22 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/raising-the-syria-stakes/article17993543.ece

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