What next? This was the question circulating in Western capitals hours after the US carried out a missile attack on Syria’s Shayrat air base, reportedly destroying nine bombers and damaging a further five.
Some analysts were reading too much into what was in essence a carefully calibrated operation, claiming this was the start of a broader US strategy regarding Syria. Others read too little into it by describing it as a move designed to bolster President Donald Trump’s position as a man who means what he says.
It is too early to decide which view is closer to reality, but several points are already certain. First, the operation was accompanied with solemn declarations by top US officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, that Washington was reverting to its initial demand that any solution in Syria must include a clear and short timetable for President Bashar Assad’s departure from power.
In other words, the Trump administration has adopted the so-called Geneva I accords, which include Assad stepping down as its point of reference in any future deal involving Russia and others. Geneva I enjoys solid support from the EU and most Arab states. Arab support for Geneva I was most recently stressed by Jordan’s King Abdallah during a summit with Trump.
The second clear point is that the new US administration is abandoning former President Barack Obama’s “leading from behind” posture, resuming its traditional leadership role on major issues. The speed with which the missile attack on Shayrat was welcomed and endorsed by key allies, notably Britain and France, indicates that NATO supports Trump’s decision to end US passivity regarding Syria.
British Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon spoke in glowing terms about the US move, insisting that Assad’s departure was once again top of the agenda. French President Francois Hollande, who had felt betrayed by Obama with his last-minute retreat on his notorious “red line,” was equally warm on Trump’s decision.
The third clear point is that the US machinery of state, in this case the Pentagon more specifically, is active again. That machinery was neutralized by the White House under Obama, with him vetoing operations decided by experts and military and diplomatic leaders, sometimes at the last minute.
Earlier this month, Trump lifted restrictions imposed by Obama on the Pentagon, instructing Defense Secretary James Mattis to reactivate the military’s expansive contingency-planning mechanisms.
The speed with which the missile attack on Shayrat was welcomed and endorsed by key allies, notably Britain and France, indicates that NATO supports Trump’s decision to end US passivity regarding Syria.
Thursday’s missile attack was a classic operation of the kind US presidents had used since Ronald Reagan, who ordered one against terror bases in Lebanon. After the first attack by Al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center in New York in February 1993, President Bill Clinton used missile attacks on terrorist bases in Sudan and Afghanistan.
The missile attack on Shayrat, even if it turns out to be little more than a semiologist’s exercise in diplomacy, weakens claims that the Trump administration is beholden to the Kremlin, at least on major international issues.
If the move signals the return of the US in a leadership position, the possibility of regional allies coordinating their policies vis-a-vis Syria increases. Obama’s erratic posture created a cacophony in which regional and NATO allies at times acted against each other’s interests.
Taken in isolation, a missile attack is little more than a method of communicating a political message. In this case, the message to Assad and his supporters in Moscow and Tehran is that every action will have consequences, especially when chemical weapons are involved.
The fact that chemical and bacteriological weapons are virtually the only types of weapons banned under international treaties indicates the particular horror with which they are regarded worldwide. Assad may have wanted to test Trump to see if he would swallow a chemical attack in the same passive way Obama had done. If that is the case, Assad has had a clear reply.
Trump may have abandoned his earlier illusion that Assad may somehow be eased out of power over the long run. Assad, claiming that his side is on a winning streak, may have wanted to imitate the experience of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who “won” the war against the Kurds by using chemical weapons against them in Halabja.
But one missile attack does not mean Trump has developed a coherent policy on Syria, let alone the future shape of the Middle East, without which the region will not emerge from its current turmoil.
Trump is expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in the context of the Arctic Council Summit, probably in June. It is holding its ministerial council next month. If and when Trump and Putin meet, Syria is certain to be top of the agenda.
That means the new US administration must shape a coherent, pragmatic policy on Syria as soon as possible. By signaling the end of equivocation in Washington, Thursday’s missile attack provides an opportunity to do just that.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He worked at or wrote for innumerable publications, and published 11 books.
— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.