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US strike more of a complicator than game-changer

“Again, to our very foolish leader, do not attack Syria — if you do many very bad things will happen and from that fight the US gets nothing.”

This tweet, written in all-caps, was from one Donald Trump, directed to then-President Barack Obama, on Sept. 5, 2013. And yet Trump this month made the call to strike Syria without the approval of Congress or the UN. 

The attack on the Assad regime’s Shayrat airbase near Homs was neither surprising nor unexpected. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, had already threatened that the US would act unilaterally in case the Security Council failed to come up with an agreement. The fact that this attack is unconstitutional under US law hardly embarrassed anyone, and Trump informed Congress about it two days later. 

The Syrian airbase was supposedly where a jet took off to strike Khan Sheikhun in Idlib, the scene of last week’s claimed chemical attack. The airbase was where the US thought the Syrian regime was storing the chemical weaponry reportedly used in the attack. 

Of the 59 BGM-109 Tomahawk missiles that were launched, 36 did not reach their target, having supposedly been intercepted, as they could not have just vanished. And in just 24 hours the airbase returned to normal, with jets continuing to take off from it. It turned out that there was nothing except ramshackle aircraft and equipment at the base, with most aircraft and personnel reportedly evacuated before the US strike.

Trump congratulated the US military for “representing the United States, and the world, so well in the Syria attack.” 

The allies’ reaction was unusually unanimous, given events over recent months, with them praising Trump for delivering to Syrian President Bashar Assad a strong message that he will not be able to get away with atrocities. 

Trump has become in the eyes of some the conscience of the civilized world, as was practically articulated by the Turkish prime minister. However, European allies have been stressing their support for a political solution for Syria as the only way of conflict resolution. They consider the US attack a punitive measure, and believe that everything should return to the legal field and under the aegis of the UN.

The International Committee of the Red Cross — the true voice of global conscience, despite often being ignored — was among the few pointing out the dangers of the US maneuvers. Spokeswoman Iolanda Jaquemet told Reuters that “any military operation by a state on the territory of another without the consent of the other amounts to an international armed conflict.” Thus Trump’s attack has, for one day at least, turned the Syrian war into an international conflict.

Nevertheless, with one unconvincing attack on Syria’s second-grade military base Trump has solved a whole pack of problems he has been facing both on the domestic and international level.

Interventionism in Syria not only risks a direct clash with Russia and Iran, but may also help the spread of terror groups like Daesh.

Maria Dubovikova

At home he has succeeded to shut up — for a while, at least — those who consider him the Kremlin’s agent. He has succeeded to unite certain Republican ranks and gain support from the hawkish wing of the party, which wants deeper US involvement US in Syria, and thus a return of the interventionism of George W. Bush. 

Trump’s demarche was even warmly welcomed by Democrats, and left them deprived of some arguments against him for a time. Criticism was hardly audible amid all the noisy support. However, all that has been gained by Trump on the domestic level is temporary.

Interventionism risks

External messages were sent as well. Chinese leader Xi Jinping was one of the first to know about the US strike, and got the information directly from Trump as the two leaders dined together. The show of supremacy was supposed to send a powerful message to Beijing. It was also addressed to North Korea, Iran, Russia and, of course, the Syrian regime.

But the attack itself is not a game-changer — it is a game-complicator.

The reaction that followed, including Russia’s withdrawal from the US agreement on flight regulation and coordination in Syria, is a pointer to how the situation could develop. 

Much depends on Trump’s future behavior in the region, and whether this attack will be followed by expansion of interventionist policy, or whether his approach to Syria and the region will remain constrained. 

Given that Trump has no strategy in Syria and in the Middle East — frankly speaking, his administration has no foreign policy strategy at all — his military adventure could threaten world stability. Interventionism in Syria not only risks a direct clash with Russia and Iran, but may also help the spread of terror groups like Daesh. 

Meanwhile Russia and Iran have confirmed their military support of the Damascus regime, and Russia is strengthening its presence near Syrian shores. No one is going to give up their positions. And nobody really knows how far each party is ready to go. At worst, a continuation of interventionism will bring the world closer to global conflict. On the Syrian level, it will end up with the collapse of any possibility of a political process, resulting in more deaths, a deepening of the refugee crisis, and the inevitable spread of extremism and terrorism. 

Two scenarios if Trump holds off

If Trump succeeds to keep his “mad dogs” on a chain and remains rational in his Syria policy, two scenarios are likely. The first is the development of a proxy war between Russia and the US in the region. The implications for the Syrian crisis will be similar as in the case of interventionism — things will move less fast, but the conflict will be just as bloody. For the world it would be truly risky, as a proxy war will lead to further deterioration in bilateral relations, with unpredictable implications for the world’s stability. 

The second scenario is a kickback to the relative status quo, with attempts to address the crisis through non-military means. This scenario is the most desirable, not only from the perspective of the Syrian conflict and regional situation, but also from the perspective of the need for global cooperation over the fight against terrorism.

Meanwhile Russia and the US will talk directly in the coming days. During an April 11 visit to Russia by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he will speak with Moscow from a position of force — and Syria will dominate the talks. The missile strike gives Tillerson strong ground in dictating the US position and conditions. But no matter what the tone of upcoming talks, some negotiation is always better than none. When there is no chance left for politicians to talk, the guns talk instead. 

• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). She can be reached on Twitter: @politblogme.