IN launching 59 cruise missiles at Shayrat, a Syrian airbase, in response to the chemical weapons attack at Khan Sheikhoum, President Donald Trump surprised allies and adversaries alike, and injected a risky unpredictability into its conduct of international relations.
For allies worried about the isolationism implicit in an “America First” doctrine, this appears to be a welcome U-turn. By this initiative President Trump rejected the nationalist wing of his own White House, led by Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, who opposes engagement in the Middle East beyond defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS).
Trump justified his cruise missile attack in the traditional language of upholding international norms, and of deterring recourse to chemical weapons as inimical to American interests.
In fact, as he explained to White House reporters, the decision was largely a personal reaction to a ‘horrible, horrible’ act that he had been ‘watching’, and that failing to respond was not an option.
Above all, Trump revelled in his willingness to do what President Barack Obama had not done. After Obama had declared a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and then failed to act following the Ghouta attack of August 21, 2013, Trump claimed that this latest attack crossed ‘many lines’.
Yet a single, punitive aerial strike neither constitutes a new US policy on Syria nor paves the way for the vision promoted by Trump that ‘all civilised nations’ should now ‘join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria’.
Hitherto all Syrian peace negotiations whether involving the government of President Bashar al-Assad and opposition groups, or regional powers such as Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, or the UN-backed, International Syria Support Group, co-chaired by the US and Russia, have brokered only short-lived ceasefires.
These truces have failed because of events on the ground: territorial gains by the Kurds, which prompted a Turkish incursion in the north; victories for Assad’s forces (and Russian air power) in Homs, Aleppo and Palmyra, which embarrassed the Obama administration and its allies, opposed to Assad remaining in office; and the refusal of IS and Jabat Fateh al-Sham, the former al-Nusra front, an al-Qaida affiliate, to participate in any talks.
The Trump administration may now have to display diplomatic dexterity to accompany its military panache, if this ‘civilised’ group is going to break the logjam of political hatreds within Syria or the alliances of regional powers with Assad and the rebel groups. At the same time, it has to crush the recalcitrant rebels such as IS. Ironically, the US bombing may have complicated these prospects by encouraging Assad’s enemies to sustain their resistance and to use their propaganda skills to stage ‘false flag attacks’, namely atrocities that can be blamed on Assad’s forces to precipitate further American intervention.
Trump’s military initiative could also have ramifications beyond the Middle East. It occurred at the Sino-American summit at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. If China’s President Xi Jinping now acts over North Korea’s ballistic missile programme, this will be a diplomatic bonus.
US-Russian relations, so controversial at the start of the Trump presidency, are likely to suffer, with Vladimir Putin denouncing the bombing as a violation of international law. While this may reassure US Congressmen and intelligence agencies determined to preserve the hostility of the Obama years, Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, visits Moscow this week to test whether relations can be reset despite charges of Russian complicity in the chemical attack.
Trump has demonstrated an agility and boldness that his predecessor never mustered, but he did so in an entirely unilateral manner with scant regard for the UN Security Council or the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons.
This disdain for international organisations may not matter if Trump succeeds in deterring further recourse to chemical weapons, but the impulsiveness of his response, and the personal reaction to external events captured on television, are bound to cast a cloud of uncertainty over US foreign policy.
Unless his rhetoric about ‘beautiful babies’ and ‘horrible’ weapons is just a veneer, this emotional language reinforces the belief that unpredictability will remain a feature of international relations in the “Trumpian era”.
Edward M Spiers is Professor of Strategic Studies at the University of Leeds.