Trump's attack on the Shayrat airbase in Syria has received plaudits from western politicians and commentators across the board. Liberal pundits, who had nothing but contempt for Trump days ago, are suddenly more respectful after this show of lethal force, even though most would probably accept The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland's caveat that despite this virtuous show of violence, Trump is still not to be wholly trusted.
The liberals pleasure at the proof of Trump's attack capabilities is felt even more keenly by the U.S. foreign policy establishment, all strands of which are overjoyed that the President has shown first that he is prepared to take the U.S. back onto the attack, and second that he is coming back under their control. In the words of former NATO commander James Stavridis:
“With this tactically sound, professionally executed strike in response to significant human rights violations, President Trump shows above all that he is willing and able to take advice from the first-class national security team that he has assembled.”
The argument, if that is not too strong a word, most widely used to justify the attack is that it will have a deterrent effect on President Assad and so reduce the likelihood of further atrocities. It therefore apparently represents some kind of limited progress for Syrian people.
The chemical attack at Khan Sheikhoun was horrific, and outrage is the only human reaction. But the question is, has Trump's response really helped to limit future killing? Events since have proved the hollowness of this claim. Apart from the fact that the attack will have caused its own horrors – the Syrian government claims nine civilians have been killed – it has demonstrably escalated tensions in Syria. The Russians, for example, have responded by moving to beef up Syria's air defence systems and upgrade their ability to bring down fighter planes. They have also apparently redirected a Black Sea Frigate armed with cruise missiles to the Syrian port of Tartus. Interventionists on all sides have been emboldened. Inside Syria, calls for more Western intervention against Assad are being made with renewed vigour. In the U.S., Hilary Clinton is following up recent calls for a no-fly zone and attacks on all of Assad's airbases with a demand for “a broader strategy to end Syria's civil war.”
This atmosphere is almost certain to lead to an intensification of the fighting, leading of course in turn to many many more civilian deaths. Crucially, it also makes an effective political process – the only possible path to peace – ever more remote. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in this desperate war. In so far as it has had an impact on the Syrian situation, Trump's attack can only have deepened and prolonged the terrible tragedy of the Syrian people.
But the attack raises wider questions, ignored by the liberals. No doubt it can partly be explained by considerations of domestic opinion, including a desire to look tougher than Obama and to allay worries about his relationship with Putin. But the fear must be that more fundamentally, this is connected to a broad shift in U.S. foreign policy. In contradiction to Trump's image as an isolationist, his presidency has been marked by military and rhetorical escalation on many fronts. He has serially provoked China, most recently by his warlike posture to North Korea. He has stepped up U.S. participation in the Saudi war on Yemen, deployed conventional troops in Syria for the first time, ramped up drone attacks across the board, and sharply increased U.S. involvement in the attack on Mosul in Iraq. One of the results has been that according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, in March for the first time, more civilians caught up in the Syrian conflict were killed by U.S.-led coalitions than by Isis or Russian-led forces.
Washington foreign policy insiders are cock-a-hoop because for them the missile attack suggests Trump is putting the last vestiges of isolationism and ambiguities about Putin behind him. In the run up to the last election, whatever the different nuances, there was unanimity in the U.S. 'defence' community that Obama's war on terror lite had been a failure and the country needed to take up more offensive stances. Now it looks like the President is fully on board.
This doesn't mean there will be immediate follow ups to last Thursday's missile attack. Syria is a quagmire and there are no easy options for the USA. Nor does it mean that Trump's unpredictability has been overcome. Liberal applause for the attack on the Shayrat airbase is particularly contemptible and irresponsible because the attack was ordered by probably the most xenophobic and crazed president in U.S. history. But it does look as if we are entering a worst case scenario, in which a more aggressive foreign policy posture is being fronted up by an impetuous bigot who enjoys shooting from the hip.
The final reason for concern is what this means for geopolitics more broadly and how this impacts on Syria and the Middle East. Those who supported last Thursday's strike are blithely ignoring the fact that it brought us one big step nearer to confrontation between nuclear armed great powers. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was no doubt pushing a point when he said the attack took U.S. force “within an inch” of military clashes with the Russians. But does anyone in their right mind wanted to be reading those kind of quotes in their news feed? And it is clear the tensions are frighteningly real. The suspension of the pact to coordinate air operations sounds technical but its real meaning is that Russian and U.S. forces are now fighting in Syria with more and more conflicting aims, no agreed terms of engagement and no official channels of communication. •
Chris Nineham is a founding member and National Officer of the Stop the War Coalition in the UK where this was first published.
- Michael Laxer, “Justin Trudeau's dangerous Syrian Trump gambit.”
- Al Jazeera, “Syria's civil war explained from the beginning.”
- Phyllis Bennis, “Trump, Syria, and Chemical Weapons: What We Know, What We Don't, and the Dangers Ahead.”