Amid national security crisis of confidence, realists win small victory
In what appears to be a brilliant and rapid-fire geopolitical move, the Trump administration has masterfully distracted domestic opponents from allegations of colluding with Moscow.
Dogged by two different Congressional investigations and a massive counterintelligence probe into whether his campaign was in touch with Russian officials actively plotting to sway the presidential election, the Syrian escalation couldn’t happen at a better time.
Superficially, given perceptions of Donald Trump’s closeness with Vladimir Putin, it may be surprising that the U.S. has inserted itself more prominently into the Syrian battle space on the opposite side from the Russians. But that is precisely why the 59 Tomahawk missiles came at the right instant.
“I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity,” said Trump, reacting to the chemical weapons attack on Tuesday that produced shocking videos and prefacing a firm response.
Politically savvy decision
First, any dramatic act of war amidst domestic turmoil can be viewed as “wagging the dog” ― an effective political tool to deflect attention from an undesirable controversy generating loads of negative media attention.
Next, because the White House is struggling to convince critics that it’s not overly sympathetic to the Russians, this attack on Russia’s number-one Middle Eastern ally communicates that the U.S. is not beholden to Putin.
Even with a limited, targeted, and “proportionate” strike on the government airfield from which the chemical weapons attack was launched, punishing Assad gives Trump credibility with the foreign policy hawks in the Republican Party and beyond. Those who feel that the U.S. commander-in-chief couldn’t repeat Obama’s blunder ― of setting a red line but not following through ― are mostly satisfied with Thursday’s decisive actions.
Seen as a victory for “realists” (such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson) who value the measured exercise of American power where appropriate, and by the pro-interventionists eager for the U.S. to re-engage in the region after taking a more hands-off approach during the Obama years, Trump’s order from Mar-a-Lago scores political points across the board.
The liberal internationalists also would appear to be content with such a response to a brutal sarin nerve gas attack on a vulnerable civilian population in Idlib, in the context of a never-ending assault on human rights.
Perhaps anti-interventionists like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) aren’t happy that the U.S. has now stuck out its neck and risks becoming further embroiled in Middle Eastern misadventures. Yet it seems Trump has found a way to balance out those concerns by opting for a relatively restrained option on the menu of military possibilities. And to be sure, hitting more Syrian air power or defense capability is still on the table for later.
‘Russia has been complicit’
Russian forces were notified before the cruise missiles were launched from Navy warships in the Mediterranean, per deconfliction protocol. Our Cold War foe has invested tremendously in the stability of President Assad’s regime; the Russians maintain a significant naval presence at Tartus and lease an airbase near Latakia.
Will the Russians follow through with threats to end diplomatic or military coordination with the U.S. or will they just engage in symbolic condemnation at the United Nations?
A strong reaction by Syria or its Iranian/Russian allies is not likely, given that only the Al-Shayrat airfield was blown up. Moreover, with the advance warning, the Syrians had the opportunity to move personnel and equipment beforehand to reduce damage. Tactically the strike did not accomplish much, but it sent a message.
“Clearly Russia has failed in its responsibility” to enforce the 2013 agreement to remove chemical weapons from Syria, Tillerson said on Thursday. ”Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent,” he added. Tillerson also clarified that the Syrian regime, not Russia, was the target of the attacks.
This course of action seems to be an abrupt U-turn from statements just days ago by Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley suggesting that Assad’s future was secure.
But is Trump ready to face possible consequences of our opening salvo, and did he really walk back an apparent endorsement of the Syrian people’s “right” to allow Assad to stay in power?
Perhaps only now Trump is realizing the complexity of the Syria dilemma that Obama and the world struggled to solve. Of course it is strange that a president so skeptical both of international law and of using American resources to fix messy conflicts has now projected American power into a quagmire where “direct” U.S. interests were not at stake.
Some media commentators are suggesting this may be evidence that, within the Trump administration, globalists (led by Jared Kushner) currently have the upper hand against the nationalists (led by Steve Bannon).
Meanwhile, for the domestic audience, a president who can effectively navigate his first crisis abroad will surely be rewarded at the polls. Just days ago, there was plummeting confidence in Trump’s foreign policy bona fides, with former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn being denied immunity regarding his Russia links and Bannon demoted from the principals committee at the National Security Council.
To boot, the NSC section of the White House website is completely blank, and a key White House ally, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), had to recuse himself from the Russiagate investigation in the House that he was leading.
Splitting up the axis?
Trump is bouncing back from a week in which Pentagon staff were reported to be confused about directives, as the State Department has been increasingly reeling from vacancies — with our top diplomat criticized for poor communication.
The anti-Assad strikes also have a bearing on the Northeast Asia front, and maybe it’s no coincidence that Chinese leader Xi Jinping is currently visiting with Trump at the winter White House. There are obvious parallels with the North Korea situation. Lacking much leverage otherwise to force China’s hand against Pyongyang, Trump may now have a strengthened the American bargaining position in that region too.
Nevertheless, the strike was a golden opportunity for Trump to place some daylight between the U.S. and the Russians, to make everyone temporarily forget the dangerous investigation into collusion with Russia and demonstrate that the administration is not just kowtowing to Moscow’s global interests.
The strike also seems to give Russia the chance to distance itself from its puppet, even if merely to promote cooperation with Syrian military brass instead of Assad himself.
Consistent with Blackwater founder and Trump ally Erik Prince’s secret Seychelles meeting in January with an unnamed Russian envoy, some Trump advisors see an opening to continue their revolt against the Iran nuclear deal and pull Russia away from both Tehran and Damascus. Though in the realm of fantasy at the moment, this would enormously please our Arabian Gulf allies and Israel, but likely alienate our European friends wary of Russian intentions and of what the West would need to offer as concessions.
Only time will tell whether the Syria strike was more of an automatic and instinctive expression of U.S. power; part of a deliberate and long-term strategy to impose a new vision on the Middle East; or a diversionary move intended to minimize the Russiagate scandal in Washington.