The Khan Sheikhun chemical attack has prompted US President Donald Trump to declare positions that have eclipsed his administration’s contradictory and confusing statements on Syria and the fate of its President Bashar Assad. Trump’s UN envoy Nikki Haley said: “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”
Haley blamed Russia for the Syrian regime’s continued use of chemical weapons. She was the first US official to describe Assad as a war criminal, stressing the need for accountability and punishment. She downplayed previous statements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said Assad’s removal was not a US priority and his fate should be decided by his people.
Haley, who stood in the UN Security Council hall carrying photos of the victims, hinted that there is something new to be expected in Trump’s policy on Syria. He has clearly put Assad on notice with his strikes, but this does not mean Trump has a coherent policy on Syria. For his administration, the absolute priority remains the elimination of Daesh, which necessitates a decisive victory in Raqqa.
Undermining Iran’s plans in Syria is an important part of the strategy being developed by the Trump administration. This, in its view, requires eliminating Daesh strongholds, securing bases and controlling resource-rich areas of Syria. Only then will the Trump administration begin playing its cards with Russia, Iran and Turkey.
The administration now knows there is no path to a bilateral deal based on cordial accords between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The domestic climate does not allow it, amid suspicions about their relationship and investigations into ties between Trump’s close associates and Russian figures. Furthermore, Moscow’s strategic alliances with Syria and Iran are not something the Trump administration can coexist with or adapt to.
This is significant because meeting Iranian demands in Syria requires de-facto partition to create a Persian crescent. The US is thinking how to pre-empt this. Washington under Trump wants to guarantee its interests in Syria, and is willing to accommodate Russia’s interests there, but not those of Iran.
Until recently, there were proposals to turn a blind eye to Assad remaining in power, while isolating him and effectively invalidating his power. But after the chemical attack in Idlib, Washington will no longer accept him remaining in power. US consent to the Russian-Iranian bid to keep Assad in power is no longer part of the equation.
Iran is increasingly anxious about the changes in US positions under Trump. So it is scrambling to impose itself via its militias on the ground, wagering that the US will not dare fight a war that requires American boots on the ground.
The Trump administration may seek to convince Putin that the time has come to separate Russian interests in Syria from those of Iran. This would require two things: Disengaging Russia’s strategy from Iran’s strategy in Syria, and consenting to removing Assad from power one way or another. This could spare Syria from partition, which requires US-Russian accord and meticulous strategic trade-offs.
But neither Iran nor Turkey will agree to this. Both have played military roles in Syria to further their interests and projects, which do not converge with Russian interests today, especially if Washington and Moscow agree to divide influence, resources and reconstruction deals between them. Turkey will not be able to blackmail its allies using the leverage of its Incirlik base, because the US will have alternatives in Syria after the battle for Raqqa.
Turkey is angry at US support for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Ankara had reached a deal with Moscow, trading Aleppo for Russian consent for Turkish operations to “cleanse” Kurdish forces near Turkey’s borders, and becoming a guarantor of the cease-fire in Syria alongside Russia and Iran. But it is unlikely to get more in Syria.
Iran is increasingly anxious about the changes in US positions under Trump. So it is scrambling to impose itself via its militias on the ground, wagering that the US will not dare fight a war that requires American boots on the ground, while having no alternative to fight Iran and its militias.
But the Trump administration may have different designs and aces up its sleeves. One such surprise came in Trump’s remark that Syria is “my responsibility.” He has consistently blamed his predecessor for failing to implement his warnings and pledges, and for weakening the US by leading from the back.
Perhaps Trump was thinking of coexisting with Assad for a while, but Khan Sheikhun may have changed everything. The children and infants killed by chemical weapons may go down in history as the trigger of a US policy shift in Syria.
• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the UN. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP — the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.
— Originally published in Al-Hayat.