Analysis by Jotam Confino
Less than a week after the Trump administration stated it was ready to accept the political reality of Assad in power, Trump decided to launch an attack on the Syrian governments air base which was responsible for the chemical attack on Tuesday. The attack reveals a number of messages that Trump is trying to convey, the most significant one being that the new administration will not hesitate to use military power in Syria, unlike the Obama administration. Trump has already blamed Barack Obama for the recent chemical attacks by the Assad regime, when he allowed the 2013 chemical attack to go unpunished.
The Syrian war is already a stain on the international community, much like the Rwanda massacre. Trump seized the opportunity to show the world that he is a strong leader that will not let atrocities happen under his watch. Not only did leaders from around the world express their support of the US attack, the liberal media, which covered the Syrian blood bath extensively, will have no option but to show Trump support as well. Who will dare to criticize a President that punishes a regime when it commits war crimes and slaughters people with chemicals?
Although the US attack on the Syrian air base could easily be seen as an act of aggression towards the Russians, the US was careful to coordinate with Putin and the Russian military before launching the Tomahawk missiles. It shows that Trump acted carefully as not to start a war with Russia, but at the same time showed Putin that he will not be as tolerant as Obama. There are still major differences between Russian and US interests, and although Trump has shown flexibility towards the political reality of Assad, there are things he will not tolerate, such as chemical attacks. The Kremlin reacted by calling the US attack an act of aggression, a violation of international law and further called for an urgent meeting in the UN Security Council.
The blame game thus continues, with Assad, Russia and Iran blaming the US for violating international law and vice versa. The US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is due to visit Moscow in the coming week, which will reveal how much damage the US attack on Syria caused US-Russia ties. In a press meeting shortly after the attack, President Trump called “on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types”.
The phrasing of this statement is weak but interesting. Until now, it has not been possible to negotiate a deal between the rebels and Assad, which means that a coalition of “civilized nations” would have to continue what Trump started and risk a direct confrontation with Russia and Iran. This scenario seems highly unlikely, because it could ignite a regional as well as a world war. Another scenario would be to aggressively push for a deal between the rebels and Assad, and possibly accepting to let Assad stay in power. This way, the bloodshed would end, and Assad’s future as the leader of Syria could be further negotiated.
Trump has undoubtedly shown Putin his willingness to use military power ahead of the US-Russia meeting in Moscow, and at the same time illustrated the exaggeration of the romance between Putin and Trump. They might have shown friendly attitudes towards each other when Trump was elected President, but national interests guides the behavior of world leaders, not friendly feelings.
China and North Korea
The US attack on the Syrian air base was launched while President Xi Jinping was visiting Trump, which isn’t a coincidence. On the agenda of the meeting between the two world leaders is North Korea and its nuclear weapons. This week, North Korea fired yet another ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan, which further worsened the already tense situation between North Korea and the US allies, Japan and South Korea.
Trump said earlier this week that the US is ready to act unilaterally against North Korea if China doesn’t want to solve the issue. By turning on a dime concerning Syria, Trump signals to North Korea and China that he isn’t joking around. China came to the US meeting with a bargaining chip, namely North Korea, but if Trump continues to punish leaders such as Assad when they cross a line, China can end up being forced to take a firm stand on its North Korea policy.
Trump’s decision to launch an attack on the Assad regime can also be seen as a way to show Xi Jinping that he is serious when it comes to securing American foreign policy interests. It is vital for both leaders to make sure they come out of the meeting with a positive result, such as a bilateral trade deal that benefits both the US and China. However, it doesn’t seem as if Trump is willing to let China get away with what he would call a “bad deal”, which indicates that the trade negotiations might end up in deadlock.
The surprising decision to launch an attack on the Syrian air base raises fundamental question about Trump’s foreign policy; Is his unpredictable behavior erratic, or simply well planned and extremely smart?
He might have been criticized widely up until now, but the decision to punish Assad is a turning point in how Trump’s foreign policy is perceived around the world, especially in Russia and China. They can’t know for sure when and how Trump will react, which can be a deterrent factor, unless Russia and China decide to step up their game as well.
Jotam Confino is the editor of Republic Paper and has written extensively about the Middle East in the Danish media. He holds a BA in International Relations and an M.A in Security & Diplomacy.