By launching cruise missile attacks from its warships in the eastern Mediterranean on coastal locations in Syria, America has entered the six-year-old Syrian civil war. The central question which gnawed at the Obama administration remains before the three-month-old Trump adminstration: How do end the civil war in Syria? Do we have the power and more importantly, real influence, to achieve this end?
At one level the American attack is in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, which is clearly against the United Nation Convention, which Syria signed.
But then, Syria has used chemical weapons before and the Obama administration did nothing, except to publicly condemned the act. The Assad regime used Barrel bombs, which are terribly destructive and which contain chlorine gas, an agent outlawed by the UN convention on chemical weapons.
Obama did not engage militarily in Syria was because he thought air or naval attacks would not do anything to alter the situation on the ground. And simply put, action on the ground aka putting American boots on Syrian soil, was too horrifying a thought.
The American people saw the plight of their soldiers in Iraq. The fight took a lot of American blood and treasure and the end result was almost nothing.
Trump, when not in power, was against involvement in Syria. In fact, he sympathized with the Assad regime, which was fighting the Islamic State. Now, he has involved himself militarily in Syria. Is this a one-off thing, confined only to missile strikes? If so, then it is of very little military and political significance. At most, the Assad regime may restrain itself from using chemical weapons but will still use repressive methods against dissidents and rebels and will draw even closer to Putin’s Russia.
It is hard to foresee the Congress authorising greater American involvement in the Syrian conflict. The US president has the lowest approval rating of any commander-in-chief in the post-war years. Besides, on most issues international and domestic – Russia, NATO, China, healthcare and corporate taxes — Trump, before and after the election has eaten his words.
America will not put troops on the ground in Syria. The quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan were enough for their people and Congress. And unless you commit to boots on the ground, your ability to decisively influence the Syrian conflict remains minuscule. Aerial bombings, as the French have been doing is Syria in recent years, has not produced a real change on the ground.
US-Russia relations have reached rock bottom. All the post-election talk of Trump allying with Russia in a war against the Islamic State has disappeared. In fact, the Russia-America relationship today reminds one of the Cold War years. Russian warships are now positioned against American ones in the eastern Mediterranean.
The firing of the American cruise missiles took place when the president was dining with the visiting Chinese leader; he probably saw it on television. The Trump administration has also retreated on its earlier stand on China. Before the election, he said he would stop “the rape of the American economy by China” Now, Trump is satisfied that China will reduce the American trade deficit.
The American strike on Syria will also set back its relations with the country that matters most in the Syrian civil war: Iran. After tortuous negotiations, in 2015, the US along with Russia, Britain, France and Germany reached an agreement with Iran on the amount of fissile material it could produce. Western countries hoped that Iran would help in reaching a settlement on Syria as it is an important supporter of the Assad regime.
Trump was dead set against the nuclear agreement with Iran; he had threatened to abrogate it if he came to power. Now that hope of an Iranian role to bring about peace in Syria is dashed, Iran must view with alarm the American attack on Syria. America does not realise that a Shia Iran could be a great ally of the West in its fight against the Islamic State.
“Make America great again”, Trump's election winning slogan, sounds hollow. America simply does not have the power to order the world around. Obama understood this well and thus chose to exercise America’s leadership in partnership with others: Europe, Japan, Australia and India. On the Middle East issue, he realised that short of outright war, he could not do much.
Terrorism is a beast which cannot be humbled by force alone.
The author is a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi
Updated Date: Apr 09, 2017 12:24 PM