In less than 48 hours, the response of U.S. President Donald Trump's administration to the chemical weapons attack by the Bashar Assad regime against civilians in Syria underwent a complete turnabout: From hesitant mumbling, evasion and blaming the Obama administration to a declaration that Assad would have to pay a price for the massacre and then to actions: a massive strike of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on the Syrian air force base in Homs, from where the regime’s planes carried out the attack.
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The United States' declared goals in Syria have changed, too. Just before the attack, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced that Washington was no longer focusing on removing the Syrian president. On Thursday night, Tillerson said the United States would act to remove Assad, though this would require support of the international community and diplomatic efforts (seemingly meaning not military action).
By attacking the air force base in Homs, Trump accomplished more than his predecessor Barack Obama did in almost six years of condemnations and reprimands for the Syrian regime. Still, the Americans have chosen a relatively safe path of action: Rather than attacks by warplanes or sending ground troops into Syria, they fired missiles from a long way off.
The unanswered question is whether the United States will be willing to continue with its commitment to overthrow the regime in Damascus. The message from the Pentagon on Thursday night was that this was a one-time attack, a proportional act of punishment after the regime crossed a red line and murdered civilians using chemical weapons, say reports from Washington. It seems that damage to the Syrian air force was limited. The day after the strike, regime fighter aircraft took off for another assault from the base that was attacked.
But even so, Trump, who has been the object of searing criticism by the media in the United States and throughout the Western world since his election, this time acted properly and as necessary. This still does not make him the free world’s knight in shining armor, as he appeared in some enthusiastic responses to the attack. It seems better to wait a little with the effusive praise over this. Another open question, which was raised after the previous large chemical weapons attack by Assad in 2013, still exists, and it’s a moral one: Why is the world willing to remain silent about the murder of many more civilians by conventional weapons?
The trap in which Trump finds himself remains. Throughout the election campaign, and also during his first two and a half months in office, Trump has not presented a unified foreign policy while making large number of contradictory statements. Yet on the Syrian issue, he had three relatively clear declarations. Trump expressed reservations about an American military operation against the Assad regime, fearing entanglements and casualties; he emphasized the need to avoid a confrontation with the Russians; and he was careful to describe the Islamic State – and not Assad – as the main enemy of the West and an ISIS victory as the worst possible scenario.
The chemical warfare carnage in Idlib forced Trump to act, but if he continues with his efforts against the Assad government, he could very well find himself on a collision course with the Russians, on the eve of Tillerson’s scheduled visit to Moscow. Over the two days before the American strike, Russia and Iran have taken a stand alongside Assad and rejected the Western claims that it was the Syrian regime that used chemical weapons against civilians.
Moscow and Tehran were quick to denounce the U.S. strike, and the Russians even announced they were suspending security coordination with the Americans in Syria, which is focused on the more-or-less joint fight against ISIS and Al-Qaida.
In contrast, it must not be forgotten that Trump is capricious and unpredictable. The compliments heaped on him by both liberals and conservatives after the American attack could also push him toward persisting in military involvement.
It seems that Assad made a mistake in his reading of the possible responses of the U.S. and went a step too far with the decision to use chemical weapons (which were supposedly completely destroyed or removed after an agreement reached between Obama and Putin in the summer of 2013).
This does not necessarily mean that Assad has lost his Russian and Iranian backing. For now, it is likely that his two allies have too many different interests in Syria to sacrifice their support after helping him turn the war around and stabilize his rule over the past year.
Continued developments in Syria depend mainly on what happens between Trump and Putin. But the relationship between the two men has been compared to the tip of an iceberg. We don’t know what Trump and the Russians talked about before Trump’s electoral victory and whether the Russians indeed possess information that allows them to pressure him. It will be Putin who will have to decide whether to show restraint after the American attack on his protégé, Assad, and continue business as usual with his current policy, or seek renewed mutual deterrence of declarations and threats against Washington.
As for the Americans, even if they don’t intend to continue military action, they have quite a few options. At the end of the Obama era, the United States had already completely abandoned diplomatic talks over a cease-fire in Syria and left the arena wide open to the Russians. Trump can now attempt to leverage the strike for a diplomatic move, out of a new position of strength in Syria.
Israel, like other allies of the United States, was informed a short time before the American attack. A surprising announcement from the IDF Spokesman’s Unit on Friday morning said, “the IDF was informed in advance of the attack and expressed its support for the decision.” But from the Israeli viewpoint, it seems that the latest developments justify continuing with the present Israeli policy: To remain outside the conflict and avoid direct involvement.
Except for the public condemnation of Assad’s actions, this is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rightly done throughout the many years of fighting in Syria. A report from Moscow on Thursday said it was Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman's accusal of Assad's direct involvement in the chemical weapons attack in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth that led to the conversation in which Putin reprimanded Netanyahu.
Syria is not the only problem in the international arena that the Trump administration must urgently deal with. Washington is particularly worried about the continued aggressive and provocative approach of North Korea, which is stressing all of America’s allies in East Asia.
At the time of the strike, Trump was meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Florida estate. The North Korean threat surely took a central role on that summit’s agenda. At least there is one message that Trump is better at transmitting to the world than his predecessor: It's better not to provoke the United States, because such actions will have a serious price.