At the end of the day it all boils down to perceptions, impressions and risk-taking. US President Donald Trump has raised the ante in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea and even Somalia. His foes, as well as his close allies, are bracing themselves for what could unfold in the coming days. The surprise US strike on a Syrian air base two weeks ago was seen as a baptism by fire for the untested, quirky and unpredictable president. The jury is still out on whether he has passed his first real foreign policy test. Certainly he appears to be reveling in his role as the commander-in-chief of the world’s only superpower.
While the US strike took the Russians by surprise and cast a dark shadow over relations between Moscow and Washington, it changed little with regard to the burning fires in Syria. In a desperate move, and feeling growing international isolation, President Vladimir Putin has pivoted closer to Iran, another major player in Syria, and has also moved closer to a non-state actor — Hezbollah. The joint Russia-Iran command center condemned “US aggression in Syria,” adding that it had “crossed red lines,” and warned that “it will respond with force” against further US attacks.
This troika comprises a motley group that has little in common, support for Syrian President Bashar Assad notwithstanding. Russia’s agenda and its interests in the region and beyond differ categorically from that of Iran and its Lebanese proxy. To call it an alliance is a corruption of the term, and to expect it to last is likely illogical. The fact is that Trump has reshuffled the Syria cards, and whether the missile strike underlined a genuine change in Washington’s policy or was merely a demonstration of the president’s grit, or both remains to be seen.
Putin may regret wasting nearly two years in Syria without forcing a political settlement that would end the war and secure Moscow’s aims. His military intervention in September 2015 was a game-changer then, and the Obama administration allowed him to have his way with minimum interference. But Moscow’s end-game in Syria was never clear. Its influence over Assad became doubtful as three Geneva meetings led nowhere. For a while Putin held all the winning cards: An alliance with Turkey, a strong presence in Syria and the ability to rein in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Betting on a meek and naive Trump to lock in a better deal on Syria and perhaps elsewhere, now appears to have been a grave miscalculation on Putin’s part.
Meanwhile, the US has bolstered its military presence in northeastern Syria and is preparing to set up permanent bases there. There are indications that it is planning joint military operations in southern Syria, perhaps directed from Jordan, in order to cut off Daesh escape routes from Raqqa and Mosul. Trump has made it clear that his objectives will focus on eradicating Daesh and undermining Iran’s influence in Iraq and Syria. Now he has added a third goal: Removing Assad from power.
For a while Putin held all the winning cards: An alliance with Turkey, a strong presence in Syria and the ability to rein in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. He now appears to be in a tight spot.— Osama Al-Sharif
Trump has sent other messages to underline his resolve. Last week the US dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb on Daesh tunnels in eastern Afghanistan, a move that many analysts believe was unnecessary relative to the actual kill count. He has authorized the military to deploy troops in Somalia to assist the national army there in its fight against Al-Shabab extremists. And he ordered a naval strike group led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to head to the Korean Peninsula — a stern warning to North Korea about its ballistic missile testing and its nuclear activities.
This is much more than flexing muscles. It is brinkmanship that could end in disaster. But despite the maverick display, Trump can defend his actions convincingly. The Syrian bloodbath has been going on for too long. It has become testament to an absurd power game. Russia has done little to combat Daesh or force a political settlement in Syria when it had the chance.
Iran has ignored warnings to end its meddling in Iraq and Yemen, and is carrying out dangerous actions in Syria. Somalia’s forgotten war has ravaged the country, which is now worse than a failed state. North Korea’s narcissist leader is out of control and China has failed to contain him. He is now months away from mounting a nuclear head on an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Trump cannot afford to follow an isolationist path in this day and age. His national security team, defense and state secretaries know very well the heavy cost of turning away from international crises. Barack Obama’s doctrine was tested and proved to be deficient in many ways. America’s own allies would testify to that. But the policy of brinkmanship, so-called gunboat diplomacy, has its risks as well. US engagement in our region has left the Middle East in tatters, as candidate Trump once said. Now he is about to deepen America’s involvement in this part of the world. Rather than testing his resolve, Russia should seek cooperation with the US president. But Russia must make a choice about its best alliances, and siding with Iran and Hezbollah would be the wrong choice.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.