ANALYSIS: Uncovering Trump's Syria policy
US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea which US Defense Department said was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017. Photograph: (Reuters)
After a period of enigmatic statements, US President Donald Trump’s approach to the complicated West Asia region has now become totally clear: Deliver more bombs, send more men, fight more wars. This is perfectly in line with President Trump's need to present himself as capable of resolving all the problems that, according to him, the previous administration left behind.
In the first US military action clearly directed against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad's forces, the US army attacked the al-Shayrat air base on Thursday night with more than 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles. According to Russian sources, six Syrian fighter jets have been destroyed.
US President Donald Trump said that his decision to clear the attack came because, according to his staff, the recent chemical attack which occurred in Khan Sheikhun was conducted by air forces which took off from al-Shayrat.
The details of this chemical attack, which killed at least 70 people, are still unclear, and while it seems likely to have been carried out by the Syrian Air Force, an investigation is still ongoing. The US-led coalition forces, the UN and several NGOs believe that Assad’s Air Force delivered bombs containing chemical agents. Russia has an alternative version, which states that Syrian forces bombed a warehouse where anti-Assad fighters were storing chemical weapons.
The al-Shayrat bombing is just the last action of a US strategy which has been in place since at least a month.
The US military had already scaled up the presence of its elite forces in northern Syria, where the Arab/Kurds Syrian Democratic Forces are now very close to Raqqa, the Islamic State's capital city.
In Mosul, despite the hundreds of thousands of civilians still living in the western part of the city, the US-led coalition increased the intensity and frequency of its airstrikes. This choice has already had deadly consequences. On March 17, more than one hundred people who were hiding inside some houses were killed.
Many countries supported Trump’s increased military action. Right after the missile strike against al-Sharyat, the UK, Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel openly backed the US decision. Later on, so did Canada and Jordan. Full support also came from Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, who said in a statement that, “He understands efforts to deter further attacks. There is a clear distinction between airstrikes on military targets and the use of chemical weapons against civilians”.
The General Command of the Syrian Army characterised the attack as “blatant aggression”, and said that this action makes the United States a “partner” of the Islamic State and other terrorist organisations. The Syrian news agency SANA reported that the army command said that the strike “sends wrong messages to the terrorist organisations that would embolden them further to use chemical weapons in the future every time they suffer heavy losses in the battlefield”.
After an initial silence, the Syrian presidency issued a statement defining the US strike as “an unjust and arrogant aggression”.
The American attack is a prominent obstacle on the path of a possible positive development of US-Russia relations. Moscow did not appreciate the fact that they were not informed, and has already declared willingness to take the issue to the UN Security Council. (A Pentagon spokesman said Russian troops in the air base were informed, but US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Russian government itself was not informed prior to the attack.
Russia is the main and major ally of President Assad in the Syrian conflict, and finds itself now forced to find a way to respond to the US decision.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called a meeting of his security council and, according to spokesman Dmitry Peskov, all the participants expressed “deep concern at the inevitable negative consequences of these aggressive actions for the joint effort to fight terrorism”.
Russian defence ministry spokesman Gen Igor Konashenkow said that his country will continue to support President Assad, and will shortly strengthen Syrian air defences in order to better protect their ally’s military infrastructure.
The Russian foreign ministry also declared that from now on they consider the agreement made with the US in order to respectively ensure flight safety during operations in Syria null and void.
It is not only about Russia, but also about US-Iran relations, which are currently very bad. Tehran is sending thousands of militiamen and weapons into Syria to support Assad, and US Secretary of Defence James Mattis has long thought that Iran is the major threat to any peace process in West Asia. During his confirmation hearing, Mattis clearly said that it was time for the US to re-establish the effectiveness of their deterrent power.
The US, and their regional allies - including Turkey - see Iranian involvement in both Iraq and Syria as an expansionist game that the country is playing in order to establish their hegemony in West Asia. On the other hand, this is exactly what Tehran thinks about the US intervention in the region.
This attack also opens a new front for the US which was, at least according to their UN ambassador Nikki Haley, focused only on fighting the Islamic State. Bombing Syrian air forces openly contradicts this line, and also is an open act of war against President Assad, and therefore against Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and Moscow.
The US has never been neutral in their wars in West Asia, used as a way to secure their presence in a strategic area very close to the world's major oil resources. They have done it in Iraq, where they have been present since 2003, and it seems they are ready to do it also in Syria.
The US missile strike against the al-Sharyat airbase is neither resolutive nor truly effective in destroying the overall military capability of the Syrian army. It is more of a show of strength, a way to continue to push the specious narrative of the US as the guarantor of international law, a sort of neutral actor fighting against terrorism and for democracy. The now irritated Russia has been playing the same game since deciding to enter the battlefield alongside Assad.
The willingness to again push this old and creaky narrative is creating a further diplomatic impasse, which hinders an already faraway solution to the Syrian conflict.