So what did Donald Trump aim to accomplish by launching 59 cruise missiles on a single Syrian airbase late last week? His supporters have been explaining his “humanitarian and decisive” action as a warning to Assad against the use of chemical weapons and a message to China and Russia (and other usual suspects) to not take Trump lightly just because he shouted ‘America First’.
The use of chemical weapons is a violation of international law. However, the issue begs a couple of questions. Number one, the Trump administration manipulated the constitutional grey area concerning authorising the use of military force. The move was backed by neither Congress nor the UN. Critics have pointed out that it had no support in international law. So does violating international law by one party in order to stop violation of international law by another party justify US unilateralism? The answer is no.
Secondly, is a military action the only solution to preventing a state from the use of chemical weapons? Again, the answer is no. And just out of sheer curiosity, how did Assad acquire chemical weapons in the first place just as Saddam did during the Iran-Iraq conflict of the 1980s. The answer is you don’t want to know.
Did Trump’s action emerge from humanitarian concerns? Assad is using other lethal means of killing – conventional high explosives, barrel bombs, bullets etc – yet the US and its allies are obsessed with this particular category of carrying out mass murder. Does this obsession, and the ensuing cruise missile strikes make Syrian civilians caught in the crossfire any safer? The answer is no. It appears that, according to Trumpian logic, using conventional methods of killing innocent civilians in far off lands is acceptable in order to protect the much more valuable and pampered American lives and the exceptional American consumerist way of life.
As it is, being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Pakistan’s tribal areas, the US concern for human rights doesn’t quite add up. In fact, it rang hollow as Trump opened his arms to Netanyahu and then received General Sisi in the White House.
How decisive was this attack? Well, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Assad’s jets were taking off from Shayrat airbase within 24 hours of the attack and bombing Khan Sheikhoun, the site of the horrific sarin gas attack last week. Assad’s answer to Trump’s message: no chemical weapons but also no change in the situation on the ground.
American scholar Micah Zenko has studied the deterrent value of limited US military operations for 20 years. He maintains that mostly these operations “either fully or partially achieve their military objectives of destroying things and killing people. However, they rarely achieve their political objectives of deterring a foreign government or armed group from doing something, or compelling them from stopping an ongoing activity. It is unlikely that (Trump’s) 59 cruise missiles will succeed in deterring or compelling Damascus, Moscow, Tehran, or Pyongyang from doing anything they planned to do already.”
The fact is that the effects of the strikes will be temporary and so the civil war will continue unabated. External powers with long-term vested interests will continue arming and training their proxies within Syria, while conducting their own airstrikes on their behalf.
So what messages did the attacks send to China and Russia? Both countries are well aware of US military power so this was no news to them. Xi Jinping was in the US at the time of the strikes. Other than showing crude disrespect to his Chinese guest, Trump merely confirmed the flip-flop American approach to a sombre international crisis that calls for maturity; empathy and sophistication – qualities largely abdicated by post-9/11 US foreign policymakers. This action will not force Beijing to rein in North Korea any more than it has done so far; hence the additional action of dispatching a US navy strike force toward the Western Pacific Ocean near the Korean Peninsula.
There is no sign on the part of the US leadership of evaluating the destructive American role in the Syrian tragedy, signified by prematurely demanding Assad’s ouster, excluding Iran from the early diplomatic efforts for conflict settlement and sponsoring various proxy forces and client states that have brazenly perpetuated the war.
With no foreign policy experience, Trump’s action reflects a heavy dependence on his defence and national security advisors. What has long been required is an all-inclusive diplomatic plan to end the protracted Syrian civil war that has brought terrible suffering to every Syrian’s doorstep and empowered a number of extremist groups. The US and its allies have failed to devise any such robust and effective plan. And with the Russian intervention in 2015 this has become a much harder goal to achieve.
The only message Trump’s simplistic Tomahawk galore has sent to Russia is: ‘we are very much in the game.’ At the end of the day then it is about sharing the spoils of war and getting the larger piece of the pie once it is out of the oven. The great power game is anything but about the Syrian people or for that matter about Assad or the Syrian opposition.
So why did Trump opt for this Tomahawk galore? Bill Clinton’s ineffective missile strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan in August 1998 come to mind. He desperately needed to deflect attention from the Lewinsky scandal. It will not take a genius to conclude that Trump too is ‘wagging the dog’. He has chosen to resort to a foreign policy spectacle to divert domestic attention especially from the intense media and Congressional focus on his Russian connections.
At the same time he has made his military elite happy as they would like to see their firepower challenge and confound the enemy as well as keep the US military-men and machines gainfully employed. After all, what’s the fun in being a great power if you can’t unleash your sound and fury every once in a while? That it signifies nothing while adding to horrific suffering is but a minor detail for the self-appointed global policeman.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies,