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Why Trump’s strikes on Syria are a good thing—and hardly enough

A former Canadian diplomat on all the messages that America’s Syrian strikes send—and how Canada and the West continue to fail


 
epa05895692 A handout photo made available by Syrian Arab news agency SANA shows Syrian Chief of the General Staff of the Army and Armed Forces Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayoub (3-L) inspecting the damage in al-Shairat Air Base in the southeastern countryside of Homs province,Syria 07 April 2017. The United States military launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield in retaliation for a chemical attack which killed scores of civilians. (SANA HANDOUT)

epa05895692 A handout photo made available by Syrian Arab news agency SANA shows Syrian Chief of the General Staff of the Army and Armed Forces Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayoub (3-L) inspecting the damage in al-Shairat Air Base in the southeastern countryside of Homs province,Syria 07 April 2017. The United States military launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield in retaliation for a chemical attack which killed scores of civilians. (SANA HANDOUT)

A game-changer, it is not. Not yet.

U.S. warships have sent a clear message to Bashar al-Assad in the aftermath of the Syrian regime’s heinous toxic gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun, near Idlib in northern Syria. Assad’s attack early last week has killed at least 70 and injured hundreds more. On Thursday night, President Donald Trump announced a military strike, couching it in terms of defending U.S. strategic interests in the region and upholding international law conventions banning the use of chemical weapons, while informing the Russians—whose soldiers and “consultants” are spread out throughout the Syrian territory—through a back channel of the coming attack. And while the American attack was a limited action specifically related to the logistics of the chemical attack itself, it could have been—and should have been—part of a  wider strategy destined to weaken the regime’s ability to wage war.

For Trump, the attack on the Syrian air field near Hama was especially symbolic. It was from the Shayrat air base that the most recent gas attacks against Idlib were launched last week. One will recall too that, in 2013, former president Obama played with the idea of a military strike after having drawn his red line in the sand only to have Bashar promptly cross it and use chemical weapons on his own people elsewhere in the country. In 2013, the same Shayrat air base was among the potential targets if Obama had decided in favour of a military strike. Trump clearly wanted to strike quickly, and the Shayrat option was already at the top of the Pentagon’s list.

For Trump, the Syrian air strike is the result of a perfect storm or, as Turkey’s President Erdogan said of his own victory after a failed coup d’état last year, “a gift from God.” It could not have come at a better time for Trump.

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Since the beginning of his presidency, there has been much to criticize: failure to repeal Obamacare, disorder in communications worsened by the President’s almost obsessive need to use Twitter, Michael Flynn’s 28-day career as a White House national security advisor, the court challenges to two temporary refugee bans, the scandal over Russian interference in the last U.S. presidential election, and countless others. It has been a comedy of errors. Before the Syrian strike, the President’s popularity with the American people set record lows.

Yet, with one swift and unexpected blow, the domestic critics have been silenced. Something has actually worked this time—a presidential order executed cleanly, a logistical first for Trump’s administration—and the unpredictable Trump has succeeded where ex-president Obama failed in taking firm action to stop the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people. In addition to strong public support, there is bipartisan approval amongst the American political class. The traditional Republican Party, which holds a majority in Congress, are hawks on Russia and Syria, and politicians like John McCain and Marco Rubio have been clamouring for a harder line. As such, the Syrian attack offers cover to Trump’s presidency from allegations of collusion and cupidity regarding Russian tampering in the last presidential election.

President Donald Trump prepares to speak at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., Thursday, April 6, 2017, after the U.S. fired a barrage of cruise missiles into Syria Thursday night in retaliation for this week's gruesome chemical weapons attack against civilians. (Alex Brandon/AP/CP)

President Donald Trump prepares to speak at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., Thursday, April 6, 2017, after the U.S. fired a barrage of cruise missiles into Syria Thursday night in retaliation for this week’s gruesome chemical weapons attack against civilians. (Alex Brandon/AP/CP)

On the international scene, Trump’s decision has succeeded in currying the favour of America’s Western allies, while injecting cautious optimism into the Syrian opposition and sending several messages to the international community, Assad, and his Russian and Iranian allies. Unlike former president Obama, the U.S. policy of “leading from behind” is not without exceptions. That policy may even be under serious reconsideration especially given the popularity gains it has won for Trump and his team. The Obama policy was never very popular with the Pentagon anyway. The temptation may be to go back to the well next time Trump’s unpopularity hits new highs.

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Not all the reaction is positive though. After having leaked news that Russia’s support of its Syrian ally is not unconditional, the Russians, like the Iranians, have criticized the strike. The Syrian government, meanwhile, has vowed to be more vigilant in the use of its anti-missile batteries, but this could be a non-starter given Israel’s threats if an Israeli plane is attacked, as one was in April, by Russian forces. President Netanyahu’s February visit to Moscow provided him an opportunity to remind Russia to ensure the safety of ongoing Israeli overflights while delivering a warning about any stepped-up Iranian and Hezbollah activity in Syria and near the Israeli border.

Only time will tell whether this attack on Assad’s forces will be the first of many. In terms of the Syrian conflict itself, it has not changed the military situation on the ground. Since their defeat in Aleppo late last year, the rebels have been backed up in the Idlib corner of Syria and in a few other pockets around the country. Fighting continues throughout Syria though, and rebel commanders confirm that the embargo on delivery of U.S. supplies and materials has been partially lifted.

But while friends and supporters of the Syrian moderate democratic opposition hope that this first American strike will be followed up with a series of planned attacks accompanied by a cogent strategy to oust Bashar al-Assad from power, there continues to be no Syria policy—much less any independent course of action—from Canada. This morass is simply another side of the very disappointing performance of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government in foreign policy generally, the likes of which resemble the visionless Harper era. Despite Syrian experts and observers raising their voices, and despite taking an energetic defence of Syrian dissidents early on, Canada continues to drag its feet as if the hypocritical inaction of the past six years constitutes some sort of real policy. Depending on the civil service at Global Affairs to mull through and manage world conflicts and avoid having the Trudeau Liberals take any decisions that may impute responsibility is the opposite of principled and strategic leadership. It will surely not be enough for Canada to win a seat on the Security Council and be a trusted actor on the world stage.

Most political observers would agree that America’s election of Donald Trump as president adds uncertainty into conflicts like Syria. And the regime’s barrel bombs will continue, unfortunately. But Trump took the action that gave him the best chance to stop the toxic gas attacks that Assad has been inflicting on his own people. Make no mistake, the hands of the Russians and Iranians are covered in the blood of innocent Syrian civilians, but thanks to Trump, the world may see an end to at least one particularly horrific form of barbarism, and some civilian lives may be saved. No matter where our political allegiances may be, this is a good measure. In the meantime, friends of the Syrian opposition and people within Syria are hoping for more strikes against the Syrian regime and their Russian and Iranian backers. But after six years of preaching in the desert, I do not have much hope. Trump’s attacks ultimately look too much like a drop in the bucket: Not enough. Not even the minimum.

After all, the world would be a better place without Bashar al-Assad.

Bruce Mabley is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau Group, a Montreal-based think tank devoted to analysis of international politics. A former Canadian career diplomat and academic specializing in Islamic law and politics, he was decorated by the French Republic as Chevalier des Palmes académiques.


 

Why Trump’s strikes on Syria are a good thing—and hardly enough

  1. When retaliation occurs the missile strike won’t look so wonderful.

    • I think a lot of this had to do with trying to make Obama look like a ‘Milquetoast President’ and how to put the ‘Russian Connection’ on the back burner of the Politic torque shows.

  2. There’s not much that turns Canucks warlike more quickly than dead babies or the little girls not being allowed to go to school. Didn’t we just anoint the poster girl for the latter category, Malala Yousefi, with Canadian citizenship? Thanks to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory and their White Helmets, we’ve got more dead babies’ pictures than at a pro-life rally. To-day we want to encourage the Donald to lay the Lord’s vengeance down upon Assad in honor of the children of God he purportedly ‘offed’ in a public gassing. Hell, if we had a real airforce or some cruise missiles we’d do it ourselves.

    This ‘knee jerk retribution’, with absolutely no proof, is the sort of stuff that would have stopped World War Two and the Cold War by extending World War One for most of the rest of that century. Too bad our warror ancestors let down the heroes of Vimy by failing to didn’t have the will, or the foresight, to realize that Versailles was not a god idea and that – with just a little more killing – peace, real peace … eternal peace, could have been theirs. And ours.

    But that’s as much a load of horsepellets as imagining that Assad will ‘cave’ to Trump and the US armed forces, or that the Russians won’t nuke first, like our daddies thought they would. Hells bells, look at all the successes our ‘warrior heritage’ has been bringing lately. Another couple of years and we may have ISIS licked, like we licked the Taliban – or them doing ISIS over here.

    That is where all this is headed, right?

    For there seems to be precious little sense of Canada, or anybody else reasonable, making peace ‘over there’ without more war first.

    And Jebus wept! Again.

  3. Why is it that a concatenation of sexuagenarian Syrian Generals inspecting the wreckage of a Sukhoi ground attack aircraft doesn’t pluck at the heartstrings like little gassed babies? They are both part of the ‘reality’ of what is left of Syria to-day. Or so we’re told.

  4. “The world would be a better place without Bashar al-Assad.” We used to say that about Saddam Hussein, didn’t we? Of course when the Americans were peddling that idea they also predicted they would be in and out of Iraq in just six months. Since then the U.S. has evolved into a permanent warfare state to rival the Romans but, unlike the Romans, it hasn’t had a victory since George H.W. Bush and Desert Storm and even that wasn’t decisive.

    Mr. Mabley claims that Syrians are hoping for American strikes not only on Assad’s forces but also Russia’s and Iran’s forces, a sentiment he appears to endorse. Really, he thinks an American attack on Russia’s forces is a good idea?

    As for the strike itself, that was pure political theatre, nothing more. When you tell everyone about it in advance – your allies, the Russians, perhaps even the Syrians (indirectly if not directly), it’s a gesture not a military strike. When your five dozen cruise missiles cause damage so minor that the air base is launching missions again within a matter of hours, that’s thunder without lightning. It’s hard to imagine what more of that could possibly achieve.

    • There is not one “Arab Spring” country where Obama armed the rebels to overthrow the dictator that is better off today than it was before. These countries can only be held together by an iron fisted dictator. When rebels tried to overthrow Assad, he had every right to defend his rule. Had Obama not supplied the rebels with arms, Assad would have ended the overthrow attempt quickly and there’d be 500,000 fewer dead. If/when Assad is removed, civil war will go on in Syria for 50 years while the 40 different factions sort out who should be in charge.

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