For those who bet on Donald Trump altering the geopolitical landscape in Syria, they are in for a huge disappointment. His braggadocio tweets and bizarre flip-flops, from premature withdrawal to humanitarian intervention, is mindboggling for his advisers before anyone else. The fact is, US generals worry about their commander-in-chief’s Twitter tirades as much as they worry about the enemy pulling the trigger on the battlefield.
Last Monday, President Trump woke up to two Russia-centered crises that became interrelated in his mindset. Israeli jets caught Moscow by surprise and struck Iranian assets in central Syria with the goal of drawing the US into this conflict, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raided the office of Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, after a tip from US special counsel Robert Mueller. These two developments alerted Trump to engage in two strikes: a military one overseas to prove his anti-Russia credentials and a legal one at home against Mueller’s octopus infiltration in his private and business life. However, the Pentagon tamed his reaction on Syria and the Congress restrained his temptation to undermine the Russia investigation.
Yet, Trump should be given credit, when credit is due. His tweet on April 11 telling Russia to “get ready” for the coming US missiles on Syria re-opened the hotline between Washington and Moscow. Russian officials explicitly pointed out that they are in direct contact with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford. Calmer heads began to prevail, including Trump who claimed yesterday that he “never said an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all”. The US president’s passive-aggressive Twitter diplomacy previously secured him a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after the two squabbled over who has the mightiest nuclear button.
Russia’s influence in Syria has been unchecked in the past three years and it is long overdue to establish some sort of deterrence. The psychological warfare was effective for a limited time, but ultimately the US has no plans to compete with Russia in Syria. The only US problem with Moscow seems to be the use of chemical weapons; killing Syrian civilians in conventional weapons is fine otherwise. While the world has been obsessed with a strike that did not happen yet, the Syrian regime took full control of Eastern Ghouta and continue to expand territorial gains in the southwest. Hence, we obviously are not in a turning point in the Syrian conflict, but this crisis can build a strong case for holding the expected meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, once the dust settles.
[Trump’s] insistence on acting in Syria primarily comes from the obsession of being different from his predecessor, Barack Obama, who faltered on the chemical attack redline in 2013.
US General George Patton once said: “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” The US strike has lost its shock and awe factor and the White House’s national security council meeting yesterday seemed to have put it on the backburner. The Israeli surprise attack last Monday might have mitigated the need for a major US action. The threat to act might be more effective than the actual strike. Russian, Iranian and Syrian authorities were put on notice and recently redeployed their assets in anticipation of a strike. The challenge, however, is how to backtrack the US rhetoric if Moscow did not offer a viable path forward, not only regarding the Douma chemical attack but the overall Syrian conflict.
There are indeed legitimate questions in the debate regarding the rational, magnitude and implications of the US reluctant strike. Will it manage to deter the future use of chemical weapons or risk an international war? Should the US be drawn into the Syrian conflict because of Israel’s agenda against Iran? What are the potential targets: chemical sites, military bases or the whole Syrian jet fleet? Syria is much more important to Russia than it is important for the US, hence Moscow is willing to fight back. Settling scores between the West and Russia should not be on Syrian soil. A US strike is a standalone act, but Syrian civilians might suffer the consequence if there is no long-term plan to protect them and a credible conflict resolution path instead of the de-escalation zones mockery.
The Pentagon has the upper hand on Syria for the foreseeable future. However, Trump’s behaviour shows how US foreign policy can walk through minefields. Will Trump’s impulse, along with his newly appointed hawkish advisers, override, at some point, the checks and balances of the Pentagon? The verdict is out on this question as the US administration is going through a systemic shift in its national security apparatus.
But Trump will remain Trump, a non-interventionist who sees the cost/benefit analysis of military acts from a budgetary standpoint. His insistence on acting in Syria primarily comes from the obsession of being different from his predecessor, Barack Obama, who faltered on the chemical attack redline in 2013. Sooner or later, however, Trump will move on from Syria to focus on the May 12 deadline to certify, or not, Iran’s nuclear dealand the summit with Kim Jong-un. Meanwhile, the Syrian status quo will remain unchanged with no coherent US approach. Make no mistake, when push comes to shove, Trump cares about firing Mueller more than striking Assad.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.