What next? This was the question circulating in Western capitals hours after the United States carried out a missile attack on the Syrian air base Al-Shayrat, reportedly destroying 9 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 in 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 Al-Assad’s departure from power.
In other words, the Trump administration has adopted the so-called Geneva I accords, which include the end of Assad, as its point of reference in any future deal involving Russia and others. Geneva I also enjoys solid support from the European Union and a majority of the Arab states. Arab support for Geneva I was most recently stressed by Jordan’s King Abdullah II during a summit with Trump.
The second point that is clear is that the new US administration is abandoning former President Barack Obama’s “leading-from-behind” posture, resuming its traditional leadership role on issues of major importance. The speed which the missile attack on Shuairat was welcomed and endorsed by key allies, notably Great Britain and France, indicates that NATO supports Trump’s decision to end American passivity with regard to Syria.
Yesterday, British Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon spoke in glowing terms about the American move, insisting that Assad’s departure was, once again, top of the agenda. French President Francois Hollande, who had felt betrayed by Obama with last-minute retreat on his notorious “red-line” claim, was equally warm on Trump’s decision.
The third point now clear is that the United States machinery of state, in this case the Pentagon more specifically, is back in active mood. Under Obama that machinery was neutralized by the White House with the President 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 American military’s expansive contingency planning mechanisms.
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.
Next, the missile attack, even if it turns out to be little more than a semiologist’s exercise in diplomacy, weakens claims that the Trump administration is somehow beholden to the Kremlin at least on major international issues.
Finally, if the Trump move signals the return of the US in a leadership position the possibility of regional allies coordinating their policies vis-à-vis Syria increases. Obama’s erratic posture created a cacophony in which regional and NATO allies at ties 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 President 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 across the globe.
Assad, however, may have wanted to test Trump to see whether the new US president would swallow a chemical attack in the same passive way as Obama had done. If that is the case, the Syrian leader 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 late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s experience who “won” the war against the Kurds by using chemical weapons against them in Halabcheh.
However, one missile attack does not mean that Trump has developed a coherent policy on Syria let alone the future shape of the Middle East, something 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 next June. The council is holding is ministerial council next month. If and when Trump and Putin meet, Syria is certain to be top of the agenda. And that means the new US administration must shape a coherent and pragmatic policy regarding Syria as soon as possible. By signaling the end of tergiversation in Washington, Thursday’s missile attack provides an opportunity for doing just that.