Syria: A pre-meditated escalation by US
The applecart in the Syrian conflict has once again been upset after the US made its first direct strike against the Assad regime
When President Donald Trump ordered the firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles at the airbase that was used by Syrian air force to conduct bombing raids on Islamic State occupied Idlib district, he may have crossed the Rubicon. This decision changes many things-including the balance of power that Russia had created in the region after it thrust itself into the theatre of Syrian war.
President Donald Trump is being praised by his former detractors and angrily trashed by his supporters who had cautioned him from being dragged into the conflict by the provocation of a chemical weapons attack on civilians living under the occupation of the Islamic State. At the face of it, Trump was swayed by the horrific images of children gasping for breath under a cloud of poisonous gas and chose to reverse his oft-articulated policy of staying away from Syria. It seems unlikely that the decision was taken in such a great hurry.
The US President was struggling to shake off the charge that the Russians helped his election. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s ignominious exit from the administration due to his links with Moscow and his agreeing to speak out if he was granted immunity from prosecution was making Trump’s presidency look very vulnerable. Besides, his popularity was exploring new depths and he was hurting his cause by engaging in a kind of nepotism not witnessed in the White House in a long time. He appointed his son-in-law Kushner as his advisor to look after key issues including West Asia and his daughter to set up an office in the White House. Ivanka also attends meetings when heads of state come visit the US. According to the grapevine it was Ivanka who persuaded Trump to attack the Al-Shayrat airbase in Syria. She was reportedly horrified by the images that trickled out after the dastardly Sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhun town, Idlib.
In the 100 days that Trump had been in power he had not only failed to get rid of Obamacare, but also his predecessor’s looming ghost in the White House. His attempt to prove that he was wiretapped by the Obama administration was mocked even by the FBI chief.
What it really shows is that Trump was desperate for an event to turn around his presidency. And rather he quickly realized that it was not happening with the help of the mainstream media, whom he had aggressively accused of peddling fake news, arraigned against him. It is apparent that quietly his national security team was putting together a strategy that would sort out domestic opposition to his administration and ambivalence towards US foreign policy.
This brewing change was not visible when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated that his administration did not want a regime change in Syria. A few days after Tillerson spoke, Syrian aircrafts bombed a district in Idlib province. Eyewitnesses claim that three bombs were dropped and one of them spewed a white plume. About 80 odd people including many children died in that attack. What is not known is how many died from the other two bombs- which were also meant to kill people. There were high quality videos that emerged out of the chemical weapon attack site normally inaccessible to journalists as the dreaded Islamic State occupies it. These grisly videos were apparently shot by the White Helmets that have been accused of giving legitimacy to the IS terrorists. Before East Aleppo’s fall, the White Helmets had managed to portray to the world how the Syrian forces and their ally, Russians, were on the threshold of unleashing a massacre on hapless people. After East Aleppo’s fall, the White Helmets weren’t found and the militants agree to be bussed out.
When Trump saw the images of children gasping for breath, Chinese President Xi Jinping was summit meeting with him in Florida. Could he have waited, before he took the decision to bomb the Syrian airbase? Surely, but that is not how Trump, a TV star, wanted his decision to be choreographed. China is a close ally of Russia and he wanted President Xi Jinping to experience his dilemmas when it came to dealing with a narrative as compelling as a gas attack on civilians. Trump did not wait like Obama to seek approval from the Congress to attack Syria. Nor did he go by the earlier reports of how a chemical attack could be a “false flag” operation. Journalist Seymour Hersh had detailed who was really behind the chemical attack, which brought US precipitously close to bombing Syria few years ago. Instead, Trump scrambled his Tomahawks, 59 of them, to bomb the airbase near the Syrian city of Homs.
As any defense expert would tell you, you can’t fire Tomahawks on a whim. There is plenty of preparation that has to go into launching so many of them. Perhaps more than a month! So does it mean that Trump was preparing for such an engagement to burnish his credentials as a tough President? Perhaps, but what is clear, though, is that Pentagon was strenuously trying to break up the alliance between Russia and China. The view in Washington and elsewhere was that once China is tweezed out from this relationship then managing Russia would be easy. During a recent visit of India’s Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar and NSA, one of the things that was discussed was how to re-align Russia from its relationship with Beijing. India’s gripe was that Russians were giving space to Taliban in Afghanistan to fight IS. Indians found this strategy flawed and an attempt to weave in Pakistan in a grand alliance to stabilise Afghanistan after the US troops return to their homeland. This worries India.
Though Russians claim that only 30 of the 59 Tomahawks reached their target, Trump’s decision to use force against Basher-al-Assad changes many things. To start with, it is a setback for Russians, who had leveraged their intervention in Syria to position themselves as a global player again after the collapse of Soviet Union. Besides securing their influence in Syria, they also managed to check the designs that Turkey may have had on this country of Levant. Russian President Vladimir Putin rather adroitly managed to work with Israel and also softened Saudi Arabia as it negotiated an oil production freeze agreement with OPEC. Turkey that is part of NATO agreed to work with Russia to quell Islamic State despite allegations that the country was its promoter as it allowed them free access through its borders into Syria. In a certain way, Russia had conveyed to all the countries desperate to throw out Assad and also divvy up the country that this was unacceptable to them. Russia found allies in Iran and Hezbullah to fight off the IS in Syria. The United States of America under erstwhile US President Barack Obama signed a non-confliction treaty with Russia and pretty much allowed them to throw out IS from its main cities. The Russians, in turn, fortified the air defences by installing state of the art anti-missile systems like S 300s around key cities and used aerial bombing to limit IS’s influence.
The attack at the Syrian air base presents a new problem for Russia. After Donald Trump came to power, a person who believed that Syria’s problems were linked to CIA’s covert operations, Russian President Vladimir Putin believed that he would be able to end the war in West Asia on his terms. Putin’s ability to work with all the countries in Syria’s neighbourhood and close ties with Iran promised to reorder the region and help preserve Russia’s influence in the region.
Key worry for Russia is will the US attack see an escalation? If US Ambassador to UN is to be believed then it might. Also Haley talks about removal of Assad in the coming days. These assertions go contrary to everything that Trump stands for. It’s apparent that the “deep state” that Trump criticised during his presidential campaign got a measure of him. Understandably, his decision was praised by 18 major editorials in US newspapers. A commentator even went on to say that Trump looked “ Presidential” for the first time after he took over the Oval office. The media that Trump criticised last many months went overboard on the missile attack. They never asked for proof of who may have been behind the attack.
This attack also threatens Iran and the P5+1 nuclear deal, which Trump has rubbished and promised to renegotiate.
Russia, Syria’s embattled President Assad, to whom victory was in sights after the Aleppo attack and Iran have said that US has crossed the redline and they would retaliate if there is another aggression. Russians have put their airforce on alert as if they are going to war. Some Russian warships have been sent too to the Mediterranean sea. All this does not bode well for the region that has been in the throes of violence past 6 years. Worse, Islamic State that seemed to be on its last legs, could see a revival.
These are worrying trends that could see a nasty scrap between Russia and the US. What needs to be seen is whether an immature Trump backs off!