Serendipitously, President Trump was dining with Chinese President Xi Jinping when he ducked out to inform the world of his instructions to strike against the Syrian Air Force unit believed responsible for the gas attacks in Syrian city of Idlib last Tuesday. It was hard not to feel some satisfaction that finally someone was standing up to a regime that has been responsible for the vast majority of war crimes in the tragic destruction of Syria during the last six years.
If Xi Jinping concurred, then it was a Security Council of two. But, can someone tell me the difference between gas attacks, barrel bombs, a torture-killing detention machine, siege and starvation tactics and orchestrated mass displacement?
Only in the previous week, Nikki Haley, the United States’ permanent representative to the United Nations, openly stated that U.S. policy was not about the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, making public what had been the reality of the former administration’s unstated view since 2012. There is nothing to suggest last Thursday night’s strike has changed this.
The fear of what may follow Assad has nudged the conflict in his favor since its inception. And it’s hard to see how the strike could reset political negotiations, recalibrate the rules of the game, or get Assad to deviate from his ruthless logic. This could go several ways.
It could expose U.S. service personnel fighting ISIS in Syria to attacks from the regime. It might upset the modus vivendi with Russia, or it may encourage it.
It will certainly give succor to some of the opposition factions that are equally opposed to Assad and the U.S. It will complicate the already bizarre square dance in Manbij in northern Syria, where Russians, the U.S., the Turks, the Kurds, and regime officials have all converged. And it could drag the U.S. further into the war for an extended period, which is where it is headed.
Mopping up operations against ISIS, in what is now a common theater in Iraq and Syria, will take months if not years. Priority one for the West, ISIS is a lesser concern for most regional stakeholders. Each challenge is not a nail: nor a hammer every solution. Gas attacks are heinous. But the U.S. is not an impartial policeman. Russia, and others, rightly rail against U.S. drone strikes, the tragic destruction of Mosul in the war against ISIS, and U.S. support, by both the Obama and Trump administrations, for the hapless Saudi/Emirati war on and war crimes in Yemen.
Apart from Syria, opportunists want to undermine the Iran nuclear deal, the Gulf States and Egypt are clumsily trying to drag Trump’s administration into their war on the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hezbollah and Israel are primed for another confrontation. All this before the ISIS eulogy has been written.
Welcome Mr President; we have seen the entrée, what’s the main course?