The administration of Donald Trump has done little to dispel the question mark still looming over the American missile strike against the Syrian airbase on Friday – a showy one-off retaliation with no follow-up or just the beginning of a wider escalation? Senior representatives of the administration just muddied the waters on Sunday, giving out mixed messages on whether they were looking for a quick deal with Russia, the Assad regime’s backer, to end the tense situation or whether the White House had a new and clear objective in Syria.
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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Russia must clarify whether it “was complicit here or whether they were simply incompetent or whether they got outwitted by the Bashar al-Assad regime.” He qualified, saying that he didn’t believe Russia would respond by force to the “very proportional” American strike and denied that the military coordination between the two countries had been cut off.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster also said that Russia should take responsibility, adding that “Russia could be part of the solution.” He was also less than conclusive on the future of Assad, saying that “it’s very difficult to understand how a political solution results from a continuation of the Assad regime,” but that “we’re not saying that we’re the ones to effect that change.”
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said “There is no political solution with Assad at the lead,” but also said “getting Assad out is not the only priority.” She said that another priority was “getting out the Iranian influence”.
But meanwhile Russia seems to be doubling down on its support of both its allies, Syria and Iran. In a press release, the Kremlin highlighted a phone call between President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rohani during which they agreed that “the aggressive U.S. actions against a sovereign state, which violate international law, are unacceptable.” A statement from the joint operation center of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in Syria further escalated the rhetoric, saying that “what America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines. From now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well.”
Add to this the rush of Russian propaganda channels to the damaged Shayrat airbase on Friday to show how Syrian fighter jets were still taking off on missions, as well as the reports of multiple attacks still taking place against civilian targets in Idlib province. It doesn’t look like either side is trying very hard to calm the situation down.
America’s allies at least seem to be betting on a possible escalation. Not only Israel, which last week was quick to anger Russia by blaming Assad directly for the Idlib attack, but Britain too. On Sunday, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson inflamed Moscow by announcing that he was cancelling a visit to Russia this week. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon went a step further by saying that “This latest war crime happened on their (Russia’s) watch. In the past few years, they have had every opportunity to pull levers and stop the civil war. By proxy, Russia is responsible for every civilian death last week.”
Over the next two days, as the foreign ministers of the G7 nations meet in Italy (it was only three years ago, before Russia invaded Ukraine, that it was the G8), there should be some indication whether the British are in sync with the Trump administration. After Italy, Tillerson is still scheduled to carry on to Moscow. A meeting with Putin has already been removed from the itinerary, and the tone of the remaining meetings, if they'll take place, could signal either a true escalation or the start of a cooling-off. Not that Tillerson is necessarily that influential in the decision-making process back in Washington.
There's another possibility altogether. Trump's objective may not even be in Syria. Some of the most influential voices in his administration, especially that of strategy chief Steve Bannon, see Russia as an ally and believe the biggest threat lies eastward, in China. The latest escalation in the Middle East was preceded by a war of words between Washington and Pyongyang over North Korea's nuclear program. Last week, Trump said in an interview with the Financial Times that "China will either help us with North Korea, or they won’t. If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be very good for anyone.”
The American strike on Syria took place while Trump was sitting down to dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Florida estate. With one pinprick, a minor attack considering America's military capabilities, the U.S. sent a message that the new administration is much less gentle than Obama's. Since then, the U.S. has deployed an aircraft carrier group to waters near the Korean Peninsula. The Chinese and North Koreans couldn't have failed to get the message. Will that be enough to get Beijing to pressure North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un to cease from nuclear tests and long-range missile launches? No one can predict the moves of the unpredictable president, but it's very hard to see Trump's military advisers not doing everything in their power to stop him from starting two wars on opposite sides of the globe.
Syria or North Korea? Where will Trump escalate first, if at all? Like every president, he is also being pushed in opposite directions by advisers with contradicting agendas. The “civilians” led by Bannon are likely to urge a deal with Russia while toughening the stance towards China and North Korea. The “generals” headed by Defense Secretary James Mattis see in the Middle East an arena where Obama allowed a dangerous vacuum and may push for curbing Russian and Iranian influence in Syria first.
Ultimately, it will be the president’s call and this is a president with two unique characteristics. Trump, in his eyes at least, is the master of the art of the deal and would love a grand agreement which would allow him to play the statesman on the world stage. China, which has refrained from provocative statements, seems a likelier candidate right now for a deal than the Kremlin, which is signalling that it is deeply offended over the missile strike. Trump also prefers getting his information from cable channels news rather than from the daily briefing from the intelligence community. The footage of children killed by sarin in Khan Shaikhoun played a major role in his decision to order the missile strike. Now he has to get up every morning and watch the attacks on Syrian civilians continue and hear commentators say he has achieved nothing so far. From the hermit kingdom of North Korea very few picture are coming out and the cable pundits are a lot less gung-ho.