U.S. Airstrike on Syria Met with Cautious Approval

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

April 28, 2017

The unpredictable nature of the Trump White House made headlines last week as U.S. ships launched a cruise missile strike on a Syrian military base said to have launched the April 4th chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun. Despite having clearly signaled for weeks against any involvement in Syria beyond the targeting of Islamist militants, the Trump administration has seemingly performed a complete U-turn. The apparent policy shift has been welcomed by many in the Arab world who have been arguing for a more robust U.S. involvement in the region. However, not everyone is convinced that the airstrike constitutes a real change in U.S. posture in Syria, with some going so far as to suggest that the only doctrine that can be ascribed to the U.S. president is that of inconsistency and volatility.

Many regional commentators have highlighted Syria’s past chemical weapons use as grounds for supporting the U.S. strike. For example, Haaretz News’s Moshe Arens argues that the U.S. action was justified and long overdue: “What should have been done years ago has been done by Donald Trump. Bashar Assad received a message delivered by 59 Tomahawk missiles that struck Syria’s Shayrat air base: The use of chemical weapons will not go unpunished. …When Barack Obama, despite the warning he gave Assad against using chemical weapons, failed to act, he opened the door to Russian aircraft and troops to assist Assad in Syria…. Trump was prepared to run that risk…. As for Assad, who seemed to be finally gaining ground against the rebels with the help of the Russians and Iranians, why would he take the risk of using chemical weapons against civilians again? First, he felt confident of Russia’s backing. Second, he thought he had reason to believe that Trump, like Obama, would do nothing. He was right about Vladimir Putin and wrong about Donald Trump…. The readiness to strike a deal with a dictator like Assad is easy to understand. Once an agreement is reached he can be counted on to implement it…. That’s why Trump at first saw him as a preferred partner in the fight against the Islamic State… Even though sometimes a dictator may be the partner of choice, you better draw the line somewhere. And Trump decided to draw that line.”

Moatza Bellah Abdel-Fattah, in an op-ed for Daily News Egypt, also sees in Trump’s decision an attempt to send a message to both Syria and Russia: “The chemical bombing of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria was a golden opportunity for Trump’s administration to convey three messages. The first message….This was an opportunity for Trump to tell the world he is a man of decisions… The second message is to Russia: Trump’s administration is telling Vladimir Putin that America is there and…would make the country impose its presence…. The third message is to U.S. allies: Washington’s allies considered Trump’s tenure to be the return to the principle of the Monroe Doctrine, which is based on America’s isolation and in its self-sufficiency. This divided the U.S. allies into two teams. Some allies fear this idea, as it means that Washington will tone down its role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which is the core of Europe’s security… On the other hand, many right-wing politicians welcomed U.S. isolation under Trump. They were caught by surprise when the strike took place… Fourth message: What benefit is there for us, the Arabs? Nothing! We went in different directions when we took different stands. The fate of Syria is yet to be determined by the decisions that will be taken away from the will of its people, and in non-Arab capitals.”

Gulf News commentator Osama Al Sharif is even more effusive over the U.S. president’s decision,  pointing out that Mr. Trump “… passed his first foreign policy test with flying colours. He had asserted America’s leadership after years of speculation and doubts under Obama…. It is hard to believe that Trump’s swift reaction was triggered entirely by the horrific scenes of dying Syrian babies. Civilians, including children, have been the primary victims of the seven-year-old civil war in Syria and the regime…Trump has made it clear before that his main goals in Syria were to defeat Daesh.…But Trump had growing credibility problems at home…. Trump badly needed a deflection and an opportunity to reset his troubled presidency. Then came the Syria incident. It was a golden opportunity to win multiple scores on as many fronts…. The Syria strike would show his allies as well as his foes that he means business and that his words and threats carry weight…. But beyond that it would be hasty to assume that Washington is about to take on Al Assad. The strike had a limited effect on Syria’s military capabilities and the stricken base remains operational. Although the U.S. threatened further action in the future, it is unlikely that it would risk confrontation with Russia in Syria.”

Some see in the U.S. decision to strike the Syrian airbase a turning point for the Syrian crisis. Asharq Alawsat’s Salman Al-Dossary suggests that the attack constituted “a small step in changing the field condition and ending the Syrian tragedy. Maybe, if the attack happened when Barack Obama threatened with the ‘red line’ in 2013 and before the Russian military intervention then its influence might have been bigger — it might have contributed to supporting the opposition and putting huge pressure on Assad’s regime. One strike will not change the horrible way Assad treats civilians and will not affect his power, even if it prevents him from using chemical weapons soon…. It is true that the U.S. attack is a huge symbolic step but it will be considered a limited tactic if compared to the facts on ground…. The U.S. is not Switzerland [and does not have] to act impartially towards international conflicts [but] 50 Tomahawk missiles alone will not trigger a huge change. If the U.S. chooses the relatively low-cost option represented in limited military response such as cruise missiles, then it can also take an international efficient step against Assad’s regime through exerting pressure to implement the international resolutions — establishing safe zones….The military strike at Assad’s regime might be a first step towards regaining respect to the international resolutions and pushing the international community, U.S. in the lead, to play its role in putting an end to the Syrian tragedy.”

Meanwhile, Turkish observer Murat Yetkin, in an op-ed for Hurriyet Daily News, welcomed the news but demanded that the United States do more to change the situation on the ground: “The U.S. strike early on April 7 on [the] Syrian air base of Shayrat is likely to change the entire Syria equation, if not signal a new set of circumstances for the Middle East…. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan yesterday said ‘Good, but not enough’ to Trump’s strike. Ankara has again started to stress that it wants no al-Assad in any settlement, while persisting in its line on the need to establish no-fly zones for refugees and opponents of the regime….it is certainly necessary to improvise new steps for an end to bloodshed and misery in Syria for a better future for the people living there. The statement of the Turkish Foreign Ministry on April 7 contained an important detail, making a call to stand against all kinds of attacks on civilians, whether chemical or conventional. The U.S. president reacted against the use of chemical weapons this time in Syria. But 450,000 people have been killed by ‘conventional means’ in Syria so far, according to UN figures. What’s more, 5 million people have been displaced within the country and 5 million have fled the country (around 3 million of whom are in Turkey). It is good to react against massacres by the use of chemical weapons. But does that mean it is OK to carry out systematic massacres by conventional means?”

A similar demand for more action comes from the National’s Hassan Hassan, who urges the Trump administration to come up with a cohesive and consistent policy in Syria that goes beyond dropping bombs or singling out only terrorist groups: “The one-off hit sent a message that U.S. policy over the past six years can change. Joy replaced, for now, a profound sense of despair that prevailed within the opposition in recent months, particularly since the regime’s recapture of eastern Aleppo.… Policymakers in Washington should understand that dropping bombs from the air is not policy and does not safeguard the gains made against extremism. A policy is necessary to place the U.S. involvement in the politics of Syria and lay the groundwork for dealing with the post-Raqqa fight against jihadists. Does the U.S. want to hand over the territory it extracted from ISIL to the regime? How does it seek to maintain its ability to dictate how best to prevent ISIL from returning or other groups from filling the vacuum? The air strikes put on the table options the previous administration was not willing to consider. The U.S. is creating a sphere of influence in areas currently or previously held by ISIL, in the form of an arc stretching from eastern Aleppo to Iraq to southern Syria. The regime increasingly wants to be there, and the US will have to decide whether it is in the long-term interest of the anti-jihadism fight to somehow oblige.”

However, Mr. Trump’s airstrikes have exposed him to charges of hypocrisy, as his administration had previously seemed to be dropping calls for regime change. For example, Sadik Unay, writing for the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, points out that for Mr. Trump “the chemical assault posed a major challenge, exposing contradictions in his personal position on military intervention in Syria…. But in his new position as the U.S. president, Trump started to strongly criticize the indecisiveness of Obama in the face of a chemical threat transgressing the so-called red lines… Whether the missile strike was intended as just another PR opportunity for Donald Trump to demonstrate the upgraded posture of the U.S. in global security matters, or represents a real turning point in American foreign policy towards Syria, remains to be seen. After all, it was only days ago that the administration declared that their priority in Syria was fighting Daesh, and pushing for regime change was not on their agenda, because Assad represented a ‘political reality.’ But if Trump wants to galvanize his posture as a strong global leader who can challenge Putin and if the American war machine is truly committed to entering the Syrian theater against Russia with full force, then the whole world shall brace for rising geopolitical tensions.”

On the other hand, Iranian dailies have been critical of the U.S. strike, as seen in this Tehran Times op-ed written by Yuram Abdullah Weiler, who characterizes President Trump as “trigger happy” and likely to ignite a war with Russia: “The ‘targeted military strike’ on Syria, which plausibly is an act of war and thus puts Trump in violation of the U.S. constitution and international law, came upon the heels of an emotional appeal by U.S. envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley. ‘How many more children have to die before Russia cares?’ Haley pontificated while staring fixedly at the Russian Ambassador.  This comes less than a week after the former South Carolina governor parroted U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that ‘our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.’… Clearly, Trump has resurrected regime change in Syria but what will come next?  This unknown will largely be determined by Russia’s reaction. If the volatile U.S. leader can assure Russian President Vladimir Putin that the missile strikes will be strictly confined to President Assad’s forces and avoid any Russian personnel, then perhaps this highly inflammable, high risk game can continue briefly.  But how long will it be before another Russian warplane is shot down or the trigger-happy Trump strikes Russian troops, elevating and intensifying the conflict into a showdown between the U.S. and Russia?”

Finally, Jerusalem Post’s Jeff Barak proposes another explanation for Mr. Trump’s decision to opt for a military response, suggesting that one should not read too much into his actions since the U.S. president lacks a consistent strategy and has shown to be erratic and unpredictable: “This is a president who brings inconsistency in his foreign policy worldview to record-breaking levels….With remarkable effrontery, Trump has ignored his previous stance on the dangers of becoming enmeshed in the Syrian conflict and, less than 100 days into his presidency, dizzyingly reversed his campaign promise to concentrate on putting America first and not being the world’s policeman…. Not only should Netanyahu be concerned by Trump’s unpredictability, he should also pay attention to the U.S. president’s emotional reaction to horrific events. In his reasoning for launching America’s first strike against the Assad regime, Trump specifically called out the death of children in the chemical attack: ‘Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.’… Those Israelis who thought Trump’s election victory was about to give them a free hand to execute their annexationist agenda or launch a full-out offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip should begin to reassess their certainties about a U.S. president who is far from predictable or consistent.”

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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