By ordering air strikes in Syria, the US president Donald Trump has given clear message to Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang, who have been supporting Bashar al-Assad repeatedly
By Asit Manohar
When Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, hinted on April 5 at Washington taking “our own action” in Syria unless the UN Security Council moves to prevent the use of chemical weapons in the war-torn country, it was perhaps an indication of imminent US military action.
The barrage of cruise missiles ordered by President Donald Trump late on following day, in fiery retaliation for April 4th chemical weapons attack against civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhun, appeared limited to punishing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using the poisonous gas on his people at a time when there was no escalation in the country’s long and brutal civil war.
MESSAGE TO MOSCOW
By hitting military targets in Shayrat, Trump perhaps aimed at preventing Assad from repeating such barbaric attacks. The strikes by dozens of missiles marked the first time the US military intentionally attacked Assad’s regime. These came two days after 86 people, including 27 children, died from what has been determined to be a lethal nerve gas.
“The strike was intended to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again,” Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.
Trump said he ordered the targeted missile strikes as the Syrian government “ignored the urging of the UN Security Council.” “It is in this vital national security interest of the US to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” he said.
For President Trump, choosing targets and launching cruise missiles to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons might have been a relatively clear-cut decision. But the big question is what comes next.
The US military had been preparing options for a strike against Assad since well before 2013, when Syrian forces killed nearly 1,300 people in a devastating nerve agent attack.
The biggest difference between 2013, when President Barack Obama threatened air strikes against Assad, and April 6th strikes by President Trump is that the risks of widening the conflict are much greater now.
Since 2013, the US-led coalition has been conducting air strikes in Syria against the Islamic State, which opposes the Assad regime, but until now the US has been careful to avoid direct attacks on Syrian forces.
Assad’s regime will likely survive the strikes, and the Syrian leader may bide his time — hoping that Trump will soon turn his attention to a crisis elsewhere.
The US also realizes that forcing a sudden collapse of the Assad regime would lead to further chaos and would rather prefer to pursue diplomacy to remove him from power. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said removing Assad would require an international effort, which was being vetoed repeatedly by Russia and China.
Yet, even a limited military attack raises a host of risks. Once military power is unleashed, it is difficult to predict what will happen next.
The US military has several hundred troops in Syria who back anti-Assad forces fighting the Islamic State. A US strike could provoke a Syrian retaliation against these US forces.
Trump’s decision to strike Syria has also sent a powerful message around the world — one that could be read very differently in Moscow, Pyongyang and Beijing.
For Russia, it may finally put to rest any expectations that Trump would pursue closer ties with President Vladimir Putin, a staunch ally of Assad.
JITTERS FOR BEIJING, PYONGYANG
For North Korea, the air strikes are a warning the US is willing to act unilaterally.
For China, whose leader Xi Jinping was dining with Trump right before the missiles took flight, the attacks are a potent sign of the new American President’s unpredictability.
Xi’s meeting with Trump at the latter’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida was supposed to be an opportunity for the two leaders to build a rapport and work through tough issues, especially trade. Instead, it was overshadowed by the assault on Syria.
The strikes also possibly put Putin on notice that the US will no longer tolerate his close ties to Assad. Russia has sent troops and weapons to Syria to bolster Assad’s battle against the IS and rebels seeking his ouster.
In a sign of how little trust there is between the US and Russia, Secretary of State Tillerson said the US didn’t consult with Moscow before the strikes. Instead, it used an established military “deconfliction” channel to inform Russia that an attack would soon be underway.
Tillerson, who is due to meet Putin in Moscow next week, left no doubt about the administration’s view of the Russian President’s relationship with Assad.
Russia on Friday denounced the US attack in stern language. Putin “regards the strikes as aggression against a sovereign nation”, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to Interfax, noting that the Russian leader believes the strikes were carried out “in violation of international law, and also under an invented pretext”.
Almost precisely 20 years to the day since the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) came into force, the United States has launched a military strike against Syria for using them against its own civilian population.
The strike by the US using at least 60 Tomahawk missiles on al-Shayrat airfield near the city of Homs marks President Donald Trump’s debut as an active Commander-in-Chief ordering military strikes. Significantly, the strike came in the midst of his first meeting in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, with China’s President Xi Jinping, who is on his first visit of the Trump presidency.
Although unplanned, the strikes would nevertheless send a message of firm resolve by an unsteady President in the company of Washington’s most important global interlocutor. To some extent, they also end Trump’s notorious ambiguity towards Russia and its President Vladimir Putin who have been propping up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The strikes are likely to unexpectedly define the Trump presidency so early in its first term, barely 76 days after he took over.
The CWC came into force on April 29, 1997, after 87 countries signed it, making it a binding international law. It took 17 years of intense international negotiations starting in 1980. Notwithstanding, it has been violated several times, the first time by Iraq under Saddam Hussein in the 1980s against Iran and, more notably, by Syria on numerous occasions.
Before the attack on Idlib on Tuesday, there had been at least five similar attacks since August 21, 2013, as confirmed by the United Nations, and several unconfirmed but seriously suspected ones.
Then UN Secretary-General Ban ki-moon had said this in his report: “On the basis of our analysis of the evidence gathered during our investigation between April and November 2013 and the laboratory results obtained, the conclusion is that chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, not only in the Ghouta area of Damascus on 21 August 2013 as concluded in (A/67/997-S/2013/553), but also on a smaller scale in Jobar on 24 August 2013, Saraqueb on 29 April 2013, Ashrafiah Sahnaya on 25 August 2013 and Khan Al Asal on 19 March 2013. This result leaves us with the deepest concern.”
For Trump, the military strikes represent a 180-degree turn in his assertively stated view on how to deal with Syria. In a series of tweets between May and September 2013, in the thick of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, he had offered unsolicited advice to President Barack Obama against doing anything.
On September 7, 2013, barely two weeks after the Jobar attack, he had tweeted, “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!”
Two days prior to that he had tweeted, “Russia is sending a fleet of ships to the Mediterranean. Obama’s war in Syria has the potential to widen into a worldwide conflict.”
SYRIA IN FIX
He was vocally against the Obama administration getting involved in Syria and elsewhere and instead advised it to focus on “fixing America”. What changed his view of Syria and Assad were the heartbreaking images of the Idlib gas attack that killed over 70 children, women and men and wounded hundreds. Although the Assad government denied having used the chemical weapons, with its benefactor Russia also chiming in in denial, Trump said yesterday it had crossed “many, many lines” for him beyond the red line. He said he was particularly affected by the images of dead and maimed children.
Of course, the 2013 deaths were equally gruesome when he was expressly speaking out against Obama’s much-criticised proclamation that Syria had crossed his “red line” with the use of chemical weapons. “The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria, fix USA,” he had tweeted.
Known for his flair for grandiosity, President Trump is likely to turn the strikes into a spectacle of his much-proclaimed militarist decisiveness. The strikes could also bolster his otherwise sagging popularity, hovering around barely 35 per cent.
Add to that the optics of Trump acting decisively in the presence of President Xi and the strikes have all the makings of an important political moment for the new President.
As for the CWC, currently 189 countries representing 98 per cent of the global population have signed it and the use of chemical weapons is considered almost universally abhorrent. In defying that yet again, the Assad regime may have finally sealed its own fate. Considering the strikes came just days after Washington was signalling its intention not to dislodge him, it is quite a turn of events.
SANCTION ON RUSSIA, IRAN
US President Donald Trump is considering implementing new sanctions against Russia and Iran, the US ambassador to UN, Nikki Haley has said in an interview with CNN.
Speaking to Jake Tapper, the host of the State of the Union show, on Sunday, the US official said that the issue of the new sanctions is already being discussed.
“I think that’s conversations that he [Trump] will be having and have started to have, going forward. But I think he will have to look at the situation,” Haley told the CNN host when asked whether Trump “wants tougher sanctions on Russia and Iran.”
Nothing “is off the table at this point,” she added.
The discussions are linked to the situation in Syria, she said.
“You saw this terrible tragedy on innocent people, a lot of them children, and the first reaction from Russia wasn’t ‘how horrible,’ it wasn’t ‘how could they do this,’ it wasn’t ‘how did this happen,’ it was: ‘Assad didn’t do it.’ Why was that the reaction?” Haley said.
The US ambassador to the UN went on to suggest that such a reaction from Moscow prompted “the investigation on Russia.”
Earlier this week, AP reported, citing US military officials, that Washington launched an investigation into whether Russia is linked to the suspected chemical attack in Syria’s Idlib, which the US claims was carried out by Damascus. The reported investigation follows Moscow’s condemnation of the US missile strike on the Syrian airfield.
On April 7th morning, the US launched 59 Tomahawk missiles from its warships in the eastern Mediterranean, targeting Syria’s Shayrat airbase near Homs. The strike was in response to the alleged chemical attack in Idlib Province, where dozens of civilians reportedly died from suspected gas poisoning. Washington blamed the Syrian government for the incident, saying chemical weapons used in the alleged attack originated from the airfield.
“We’ve seen the evidence on Assad, we know exactly what happened,” Haley claimed.
However, the Russian Defense Ministry said “no evidence whatsoever” has been presented by Washington to prove that the Shayrat airfield had any chemical weapons.
Dozens of representatives of the media, local authorities, and emergency services have visited the airfield since the attack, with no alleged “storage units” or chemical weapon shells being found, the ministry said in a statement, calling on a mission of professional experts to be sent to the air base.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused Russia of “failing” to “live up to its commitments under the chemical weapons agreements” in relation to the current situation in Syria.
“The failure related to the recent strike and the recent terrible chemical weapons attack in large measure is a failure on Russia’s part to achieve its commitment to the international community,” Tillerson said in an interview aired on ABC on April 9th.
But, he added, there is no “hard evidence that connects the Russians directly to the planning or execution of this particular chemical weapons attack.”
Talking with ABC’s This Week host George Stephanopoulos, the official, who is set to visit Moscow April 11-12, said he would “call upon Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Russian government to fulfill the obligation it made to the international community when it agreed to be the guarantor of the elimination of chemical weapons.”
When asked about Washington’s anti-Russia sanctions, the US Secretary of State said “there is no reason to be lifting sanctions.” Those were put in place over the situation in Ukraine and Crimea, Tillerson said, adding that until the issues in that region are addressed, “sanctions will remain in place.”
HIT BELOW THE BELT
When asked by the political observers to decode this abrupt Donald Trump action against Syria and his threats towards Beijing and Moscow, they expressed that trump has tried to hit ‘multiple sparrow with single arrow.’ Attacking Syria and Russia, Trump has given a message to his fellow countrymen that he is not a Russian plug into the White House. Apart from this, he has given a message to the global audience that forces polarizing behind Russia and Beijing should be clear about the American angst if they hurt its interest in their area of operation. Beijing has been defying American interest in the South China Sea and Trump’s act against Syria, Iran and Russia is enough to give Beijing a message that Russia is not in such a condition to come and rescue its polar bears. Hence, Beijing should follow the American line and act in the South China Sea accordingly. Trump has also handed over the TPP baton to Japan, expecting China won’t pose any challenge to this new global order.
Trump has also emerged as global leader, which is expected from the American president. By forcing China and Russia to act according to his wish, Trump has given an unwritten summons to both Vladimir Purin and Xi Jin-ping that it may look easier for them to become a formidable force together and pose challenge to the American leadership on global platforms. However, they can be destroyed anytime on the wish of the US president. Now, credentials of Donald Trump won’t be under scanner of the American intelligence. Now, these intelligence bodies would co-operate with him on serious note when Trump decides to engage with them.
However, there are some concerns for the New Delhi too. Though, Indian Ministry of External Affairs has rejected the US idea of intervening into the J&K dispute between India and Pakistan. Trump has made it clear that he want to have his say into the matter, which may create ripples into the emerging Indo-US bonhomie. If Trump has idea of becoming a third party into the J&K matter, it’s certainly neither a good sign for Pakistan nor for India. It looks that Washington want to have some share of control on the CPEC project going on into the Gilgit-Baltic region which is an integral part of PoK and China has made around $45 billion investment into this ambitious project.