With the strikes on Syria, Donald Trump has done what he urged the then President Obama to not. Ironically, this has given him domestic traction which he sorely needed.
The strikes conducted just this morning on Syrian airbases present a whole new set of opportunities for the Donald Trump administration. It is hard to believe that a man, who had committed not to get into any new wars, would on the basis of incredibly flimsy evidence escalate the war in Syria.
The question remains why would he do something that would alienate his own followers – something already evident by mid-day, when his entire Twitter and Facebook brigade seems to have turned against him and his strongest pillar – Breitbart, though running neutral stories – is facing a comments backlash from its own readers. In order to understand this, we need to look at three things – the evidence of the Bashar Al Assad government’s complicity in the chemical attacks, the nature of the US strikes and the diplomatic possibilities this could bring about.
The evidence of the government's complicity in the strike is non-existent at best. The notorious propaganda site bellingcat, for example, could only do an expose on how Russian bombs could not have landed where they claim they landed. Despite having zero proof of this being a Syrian government attack, it was actively peddling the story as proof of Russian and Syrian government’s involvement in the attacks, even though the opposition is excellent at filming virtually every strike that Russia and Syrian government forces carry out.
It should be noted that it was only after intensive investigation that the origin of the Ghouta attacks in 2013 could be pinned on government locations, though the sheer scale of that attack did indicate the use of industrial scale chemical stocks, which would have only been marshalled by the government. The issue is the US and its allies have been ignoring a steady stream of reports for the last three months of chemical weapons being used by all sides. These claims have also been made by another US ally – the government of Iraq, pinpointing Islamic State using nerve agents in the defence of Mosul.
This kind of wink-wink nudge-nudge approach that the US has taken to the use of chemical weapons is not new. During the gassing of Halabja by Saddam Hussein in 1988 for example, the US mounted a determined campaign to bring about doubt and claim that Iran may have been responsible. Similarly, in the lead up to Ghouta in 2013, a full six confirmed nerve agent attacks took place in the north of Syria, claiming hundreds of lives. The UN investigation into each one of these was held up by the US at the time, claiming that any investigation would have to be linked to an overall peace process. This blasé attitude to the use of chemical weapons frequently emboldens commanders on the ground to escalate the use of these weapons.
The question that should be asked is why have we not seen videos of the hundreds of other gas attacks, which have the tacit approval of both the US and Russia across Syria and Iraq – why just Ghouta and Khan Sheikoun? That too in an age where every mobile phone sold has a video capable camera. The problem is that when every side pretends that attacks aren’t happening, they encourage much bigger strikes eventually. Consequently, questions like "why would Assad do that when he is on the verge of victory" miss the point completely.
Logic may very well dictate that Assad does not have a rationale for using these weapons at the strategic level, but at the tactical level they can actually make sense for a field commander. The news is actually good – it means that these agents are being used exclusively against military targets, but ignoring them as both Trump and former US president Barack Obama have done – encourage their use to spill over on collocated military-civilian targets.
This takes us to the second part of the puzzle – the nature of the US strikes. Trump is on record, publicly urging Obama not to strike Syria when the Ghouta attacks – which were far greater in scale – happened, stating quite clearly the evidence was scant in 2013. If evidence was scant then, today it is even more so given no investigation has happened. Tellingly, the Russian condemnation was harsh- "The US opted for a show of force, for military action against a country fighting international terrorism without taking the trouble to get the facts straight".
What was surprising though is that there are no reports of casualties on the Shayrat air base. Video emerging on RT shows a few isolated hits – no hits of any serious value and according to the Russian Ministry of Defence only 23 of the 59 missiles fired reached their targets – presumably shot down by the formidable Russian air defences ringing that area. This was due to the fact that the US informed Russia and so gave it advance warning of the strikes, which as per the Pentagon statement "took precautions to minimise risk to Russian or Syrian personnel".
It is tempting to see this strike as a carefully calculated pinprick. If one were a conspiracy theorist and supports the notion that Trump is a "Russian plant" as has become so fashionable for allegedly respectable academics to claim – then this would be an elaborately coordinated pas-de-deux between Vladimir Putin and Trump. The reality, however, is that actions like this – highly calibrated – with minimal damage, but maximum publicity impact create significant opportunities. For starters, it has significantly neutralised internal opposition to Trump for the time being.
His most vitriolic opponents are now hailing him for carrying out what Obama could/would not. Equally, it significantly eases his path towards a grand strategic deal with Putin and gives him greater leverage and room in bilateral negotiations – something the domestic political attacks on him had severely eroded. Equally, this is also a stern message to Iran that violations of the nuclear deal will be dealt with harshly.
The real question is will Trump actually use the domestic traction these strikes have given him to pursue diplomatic gains abroad. If he does – he would have neutralised his opponents and will regain the faith of his followers. If not he just ensured that he will be a one-term president.