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Powerful message to rogue regimes everywhere

On April 4, the world watched in horror. Images of the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun, in Idlib province, were broadcast around the world and went viral on social media.
The attack is said to have killed and injured hundreds of innocent Syrians, including women and children.
According to the intelligence agencies of the US and many other countries, the attack was carried out by Bashar Assad regime’s air force.
It was not the first attack in which chemical weapons were used during the catastrophic war in Syria. According to some estimates, the war has killed almost 400,000 people and displaced more than 5 million.
Assad’s forces have previously used chemical weapons with the worst example in August 2013 in Ghouta, near Damascus.
Although the American president at the time, Barack Obama, had declared that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a “red line” that would not be crossed without serious consequences, he wavered, and eventually decided against ordering a military strike; he has since referred to that decision as one of his proudest moments.
Now with Donald Trump in the White House, observers in the region and the US are still trying to figure out where he stands on foreign policy.
The new president won the election on an “America First” platform and he and his administration are expected to adhere to it.
But while Trump has been consistent in declaring the destruction of the terrorist group Daesh one of his top foreign policy priorities, his policies on a myriad of other conflicts in the region have yet to be enunciated in detail.
This has led some to declare — prematurely — that the president will adopt a non-interventionist position. At the same time, President Trump has surrounded himself with seasoned military veterans who have extensive experience in the Middle East and elsewhere, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
Moreover, the president recently met senior leaders from across the Arab world, including Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdallah.

A US that is engaged on the world stage is good for the region, for the international political order and for the US itself.

Fahad Nazer

In his recent public comments about the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhun, President Trump said the images of dead children left a strong impression on him and led him to re-evaluate his assessment of the Syrian conflict.
He appears to have reached the correct conclusion that the US is in a unique position to uphold the laws, principles and norms of the international political order.
It is the US that is most capable of sending a powerful message to rogue regimes like Assad’s in Damascus and the Iranian government in Tehran which has also failed repeatedly to demonstrate that it is committed to acting like a responsible member of the international community.
These regimes, and others, must understand that they cannot continue to violate international law, norms and conventions — not to mention brutalize their own populations — with impunity.
On April 7, the US launched 59 Tomahawk missiles from the destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross, in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Their target was the Shayrat airbase, which was used to store chemical weapons and Syrian aircraft.
The US Navy issued a statement explaining the reasons for the attack and its objectives. It said the strikes targeted Shayrat airbase in the Homs governorate, “and were in response to the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack on April 4 in Khan Sheikhun, which killed and injured hundreds of innocent Syrian people, including women and children.”
Just as importantly, the statement clarified the intentions of the strike: It “was a proportional response to Assad’s heinous act.”
Within hours, several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UK and Israel, had issued statements expressing support for the US strike.
A source at the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the step as a “courageous decision” taken after the failure of the international community to stop the Syrian regime “from brutalizing its people.”
The Syrian war has dominated the news from the Middle East for the past six years.
According to senior US and UN officials, the scale of destruction of the Syrian infrastructure and the scope of the humanitarian crisis have not been seen since World War II.
An estimated 4 million refugees have fled to neighboring countries — Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and beyond — thus putting a strain on the political and economic institutions of those nations.
In addition, it is the Syrian conflict that gave birth to the monstrosity that we call Daesh, a terrorist group that has brought nothing but death and destruction to Syria and Iraq. It has also inspired attacks in Saudi Arabia, the US, the UK and France, among others.
It was the brutality of Assad’s regime that allowed Al-Qaeda to morph into a version of Daesh and create a jihadi narrative that transformed Syria into a haven for violent extremists.
At the same time, Iran, Hezbollah and other militant groups from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan jumped into the fray and lent their support to Assad’s massacres against the beleaguered civilian population of Syria.
The ugly sectarianism that has spread to other parts of the region is also a creation of the war in Syria .
Although several attempts have been made to try to resolve the war in Syria diplomatically, the regime and its allies have shown little interest in compromising, especially after the military advances they have made in recent months.
By all accounts, relations between the Saudi leadership and the Trump administration are off to a great start. Part of the reason appears to be that both sides agree that the political violence and instability that have convulsed the region over the past few years require assertive foreign policies and full engagement.
Both nations see themselves as uniquely positioned to play a critical role in keeping the region stable: The US because of its military power and Saudi Arabia because of its eminent status in the Islamic world.
A US that is engaged on the world stage is good for the region, for the international political order and for the US itself.

• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He is also a consultant to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, but does not represent it or speak on its behalf. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others.