A military strike was warranted but the likelihood was low so U.S. President Donald Trump surprised everyone, as usual. Russian President Valdimir Putin was furious, Syrian President Bashar Assad screamed, but the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired by the USS Ross and USS Porter weren’t just another tug-of-war or show of strength.
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Without a UN Security Council resolution and without exhausting diplomatic chatter, the U.S. strike on the air force base near Homs slapped Assad and Putin in the face, sending a message to many other countries along the way.
The military response was preceded by a foreign-policy revolution in which Trump announced that Assad can no longer be part of the solution. Only a few days earlier, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, announced that Assad’s removal was no longer an American priority.
Did American priorities change as a result of the chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun near Idlib, and will Trump now work to bring down Assad? Not yet. Will Trump renew the military aid to the rebel militias so they can fight the regime? Far from it.
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The American attack also provides no answers to the tactical questions. The Tomahawk missiles didn’t hit the warehouses where Assad’s chemical weapons may be stored, but rather the air force base where the planes that dropped the weapons took off.
It’s possible the chemical weapons are still safely stored away. The logic behind the attack on the air force base is understandable, but does it hint that Trump won’t hesitate to attack the person who gave the order and the president who gave the initial approval? For now the answers aren’t clear.
Trump did on a large scale what Israel has been doing on a smaller scale when it attacked weapons convoys leaving Syria for Hezbollah. Unless Washington decides to surprise us once again, it won’t return to being a power on the Syrian front, it won’t steal the show from Russia. Diplomatic efforts, as far as there are any, will be made without active American participation.
So the immediate and important achievement for Trump is an American political one: He tarred and feathered Barack Obama and proved to the Americans that his United States isn’t chicken. Trump, who demanded that Obama receive Congress’ approval before attacking Syria in 2013, has now painted Congress into a corner, too. Who would dare criticize the attack, even if it wasn’t based on “the proper procedures,” and even though the United States didn’t face a clear and present danger?
The question is whether as a result of the American cruise missile attack, Russia and Syria will opt for a war of revenge in order to prove that the attack didn’t change anything in their military strategy against the rebels and the civilian population. They don’t feel they need chemical weapons to continuously and effectively bomb Idlib and its suburbs. They don’t need to make the entire world man the moral barricades if good results can be achieved through legitimate violence, as has been going on for six years.
Such a decision is in the hands of Putin, who despite recent rifts with Assad is still committed to stand alongside the Syrian president against the American attack. This isn’t just defending a friend but preserving Russia’s honor. As recently as Thursday, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia’s support for Assad was unconditional and “it is not correct to say that Moscow can convince Mr. Assad to do whatever is wanted in Moscow.” But the Kremlin has said such things before, every time Russia has been blamed for Assad’s murderous behavior.
Read Russia’s response to the attack very carefully. Peskov called it “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law and on a made-up up pretext.” He didn’t embrace Assad and didn’t describe the attack as one that harmed an ally. And he didn’t directly attack Trump just as Trump didn’t hold Putin responsible for the original chemical weapons attack.
It seems that despite the loud talk, which included a Russian warning about U.S.-Russian relations, neither country is keen to give Assad the ability to upset the balance between the two superpowers.
The only practical step taken so far by Russia suspending aerial coordination between the countries over Syria based on the understandings signed in October 2015 could turn out a double-edged sword if coalition planes start running into Russian ones. It’s still not clear if this suspension includes the coordination with Israel, which isn’t part of the Russian understandings with the United States.
But Putin is angry about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments about Assad, and might want to prove to Trump that an attack on Russia’s ally has implications for America’s ally. So he could freeze or cancel the agreements with Israel regarding attacks inside Syria.
This would mean the war in Syria puts Israel in the diplomatic crossfire too, not just the military one. It could find itself in a conflict between Trump’s policies and its needs for coordination with Russia.