Why Donald Trump launched his air strike on Assad in Syria

April 9, 2017

This article was featured in the New Statesman

Barack Obama made a virtue of his decision not to follow the “Washington playbook” on Syria. His successor had an opportunity to distinguish himself.

Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria has clung on to power over the course of a six-year civil war largely because of the help he has received from his friends. At those times at which the regime’s military fortunes seemed to be waning, Assad has been the beneficiary of external interventions to prop him up: first in the form of a large influx of Hezbollah fighters (beginning in 2012 before surging in 2014) supported and sponsored by Iran; and latterly, Russia’s intervention which began in September 2015, following an official request to President Putin.

It says much about the nature of the Assad regime that it has repeatedly taken actions that squander the gains that this support has allowed it to make. It is hard to see how the latest ghoulish chemical weapons attack on his civilians had any serious military or strategic utility. It has served only to court the censure of the world’s most powerful military power. Before this week, the United States – under two very different presidents – had made no secret of its inclination not to get involved in the Syrian conflict and of its view, based on the rise of Islamic State, that Assad may be the lesser of two evils. After numerous challenges to its authority, the US has decided that it is time to act.

What is often missed about President Obama’s 20 August 2012 “red line” message was that it was never intended to be a prelude to action or a final warning, but arose instead from a clear expression of his desire not to get embroiled in Syria’s civil war. Asked by a reporter whether anything would change his mind on intervention, Obama made an unscripted remark that the proliferation of chemical or biological weapons was one such potential scenario. The message was not simply relayed to Assad, “but also to other players on the ground”, in the event (presumed highly unlikely at the time) that they would flout one of the few remaining international taboos of the post-1945 era. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation,” Obama said. It said much about the sheer brazenness of the Syrian regime that this was put to the test on 21 August 2013, with a sarin gas attack on Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus.

In the days that followed, the US and its allies were on a war footing in the full expectation that there would be some sort of punitive action. The most likely scenario, at the time, was the type of surgical strike that Trump administration has now conducted: targeting some of the regime’s weapons facilities, or the airbases from which the attacks were launched. In 2013, the then-secretary of state John Kerry made what was widely understood to be a war speech, justifying action. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and other key American allies, such as Saudi Arabia, rolled in behind in the expectation that a military response would follow. Then a sequence of events occurred that saw Obama draw back from the brink and decide against the military option. Cameron was defeated in the House of Commons over support for likely action, and Obama grew more conscious of the likely objections of Congress, and the difficulties of attaining its approval.

Subsequently, Obama has sought to make a virtue of his decision not to follow the “Washington playbook” on the issue. He has even described it as his “proudest moment”. But the story is more complicated than that. First, it is now clear that the US failed to get the regime to give up these weapons (as Obama proudly announced had been achieved with Russian assistance). Second, even if one ignores the hysterical critics of Obama (of which there are far too many), some of his closest allies thought that he did serious damage to American credibility across a range of indices. Obama thought Washington was too obsessed by preserving “credibility”. This, after all, is an abstract notion that cannot be measured in terms of immediate national interest. But even vice-president Joe Biden (Obama’s close ally on nearly every major national security and who shared his desire to pivot away from these Middle East imbroglios) is reported to have said “big powers don’t bluff”.

All this sets the background to President Trump’s decision to take military action against Assad. But this is not the first indication of an emerging “Trump doctrine” – most presidential doctrines are made up as they go along. The reality is more mundane. At numerous points during his campaign, and since taking office, Trump has expressed the view that he disapproved of Obama’s weakness on the Syrian issue, and believed that the indecision of his predecessor was detrimental to American power. Of course, Trump is not averse to changing his mind, or flip-flopping on foreign affairs. He has often argued that the rise of Isis is a much bigger problem for the United States than the Assad regime. However, on an issue so clear cut, which allowed him to distinguish himself from Obama so quickly, it is hard to see how he could have avoided taking action.

In the first instance, the firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles at a military installation is a limited and carefully calibrated use of force. It is not, contrary to Trump’s image, a reckless pouring of fuel on the fire, though there are many potential second order complications, such as Russian control of Syrian air space. The Russians have also called the action illegal.

The air strike affords Trump the opportunity of distinguishing himself from Obama on a humanitarian issue – something that can be forced back down the throats of his liberal critics (spokesman Sean Spicer will already be preparing the lines). More importantly, it enables him to rally significant portions of the foreign policy establishment – including previously hostile Republicans – who thought that Obama’s inaction was a symbolic and strategic error of long-term consequence. This grouping was already heartened by the departure of Trump confidant Steve Bannon from the National Security Council earlier in the week.

There is an added advantage in the timing too. It allows the president to begin his summit with China’s Xi Jinping having demonstrated that the United States is still willing to flex its muscle against those who challenge its authority. Finally, it may even relieve some of the domestic pressure Trump has faced over Russian influence in his presidential campaign. Russia’s forthright condemnation of the air strikes demonstrate that, for the president, the relationship with Putin does not come before all else.

The lack of clarity about what happens next has partly been created by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is not having the best of starts. After weeks of silence, Tillerson fumbled his lines on the Syria question and created the impression that the US was about to undergo another about-turn and make regime change in Syria its preferred policy again, having previously abandoned it. This is unlikely in the short-term.

Having acted swiftly and decisively, Trump may have made his point without the tortured choreography that usually precedes any Western military action. It may all come back to one of his most repeated slogans: that it is time for America to “start winning again”. On this, at least, he is likely to receive a significant boost of support from the national security establishment who have watched him with a wary eye since he took office.

As expected, meanwhile, keeping up with Donald Trump is going to be a constant challenge for America’s allies. Britain has done this better than most by trying to follow the prevailing winds on Middle East and Nato policy. Along with the French government, the UK had called for a UN resolution before any military action. In the event, Downing Street was “consulted” about the decision, but not asked to consider its merits, or offer its support. Once Trump had made up his mind, he was not going to wait for approval.

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