Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Arab heartland under US attack

Trump’s rash strikes against a Syrian air force base could set Washington on a war path the end of which is nowhere in sight, writes Hussein Haridy

At dawn on Friday, 7 April, the United States attacked Syria for the first time in the last seven years. Syria became, thus, the second Arab power to come under US attack. The first had been Iraq back in 2003 when Anglo-American forces had invaded Iraqi territories on the pretence that the Iraq of former president Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction despite repeated denials by the Iraqis. The reason for the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that hit a Syrian air force base on Friday is almost identical; the use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians. The gas attack had taken place on Tuesday, 5 April, and the rebels as well as their international and regional backers blamed the Syrian government. In a joint press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah on 6 April at the White House, President Donald Trump took everyone by surprise when he singled out Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad as responsible for ordering the use of chemical weapons against his own people and stressed that he had changed his mind about Al-Assad. Ten days earlier, the US secretary of state had said in Ankara, where he was paying his first official visit, that the fate Syria’s president would be decided by the Syrians themselves. On the other hand, the US president during the presidential campaign of last year emphasised that if elected he would go after the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria, while the role of President Al-Assad would be left to the Syrians to determine. Once in office, President Trump made it clear that his administration, unlike his predecessor, would no longer be involved in “regime change”.

In a letter to congressional leaders dated Saturday, 8 April, President Trump wrote that he “acted in the vital national security and foreign policy interests of the United States, pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations and as commander-in-chief and chief executive”. The letter was addressed to both the speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan and to Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the Senate president pro tempore. Two days earlier, while hosting visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping at his luxurious resort at Mar-a-Lago, Florida, President Trump pointed out that it is “in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons”.

Four years ago, the United States, under the administration of former president Barack Obama, had acted differently when news reports indicated that Syrian government forces had resorted to the use of chemical weapons on a massive scale in the eastern suburbs of Damascus and that resulted in the deaths of 1,300 people. The Obama administration had already warned that such a use would be a “red line”. Washington was willing to use force to deter the Syrian government from using chemical weapons again, but the Russians succeeded in convincing the Americans that the reports were unfounded, in addition to the fact that one armed group was the one which used a chemical weapon. Instead, Russia agreed with the United States that it would be best to disarm Syria of its arsenal of chemical weapons through the International Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. It was the high point of Russian-American cooperation in Syria. At the time and after the organisation had carried out its mission, Syria was declared free of chemical weapons. However, rebel and terrorist groups have had the capacity to manufacture rudimentary gases that could be used in small numbers in confined areas, like the attack that had taken place in the eastern part of Aleppo before government forces liberated that part of the historic city from the terrorists and the rebels in December.

Commenting on the way former US president Obama handled the situation in September 2013, President Trump said 6 April that the Obama administration had “a great opportunity to solve this crisis a long time ago when he said the red line in the sand.” He then added: “When he did not cross that line after making the threat, I think that set us back a long way, not only in Syria but in many other parts of the world because it was a blank threat. I think it was something that was not one of our better days as a country.”

I am not sure everyone aware of the high stakes in Syria would share Trump’s point of view in this respect. Many believe that the Obama administration acted wisely and succeeded in thwarting efforts by regional powers and some Gulf countries to drag it into the Syrian conflict. Will the United States, this time around, and under a different administration, get entrapped in the Syrian quagmire? Judging from the statements of the Trump administration this seems unlikely, at least for the time being, though the permanent representative of the US to the United Nations in New York said the other day before the Security Council that her country would not hesitate to attack Syria in the future if the Syrian army would use chemical weapons again. Senior officials in Washington described the Tomahawk cruise missiles attack against Syria 7 April as a one-time event. But they have kept the door open for further strikes, even though the fact-finding commission set up to determine who is responsible for the chemical attack of 5 April in Khan Sheikhoun in the Idlib province in Syria has barely begun its work.

The attack on Syria has dashed hopes that the Trump administration would make fighting and defeating IS in Syria, Iraq and across the region its top priority. Some hawkish voices on Capitol Hill have called upon the Trump administration to take on both this terrorist group as well as the government of Bashar Al-Assad. Other Middle East experts on both sides of the Atlantic are arguing that defeating IS goes hand in hand with the overthrow of the Syrian government. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) said that the administration of President Trump is “assessing what their strategy is going to be “and that strategy “has to be laid out and hopefully in consultation with Congress. Right now they are assessing a strategy as related to IS. I don’t know what is going to happen with Syria because I don’t know what their reaction is going to be.” He was speaking of the Syrian and Russian reactions to the recent American strikes on Syria.

Luckily, there is another approach within the Trump administration held by more moderate voices who draw a line between fighting IS as the top priority for the administration of President Trump and how to deal with the political situation in Syria, and particularly the future of President Al-Assad. On a talk show last Sunday, and two days before his official visit to Moscow, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed a well-articulated approach when he made clear that defeating IS remains the first strategic priority of the US administration. He said that by defeating IS “and removing their caliphate from their control, we have now eliminated at least or minimised a particular threat not just to the United States, but to stability in the whole region”. He added that once the IS threat is removed, “I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilising the situation in Syria.”

Senator Mark Rubio (R- Florida) believes that the development of a Syria strategy is an ongoing process that the administration has been undertaking for quite a while. Meanwhile, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Vice President Mike Pence would brief members of Congress on the “larger strategy very soon”.

It is too early to say whether this strategy will be centred around countering and defeating terrorism in the Middle East or would be a grand strategy aiming at overthrowing the Syrian government as well as terrorist groups such as IS. It goes without saying that the governments — Western, regional and Arab ones — who have been arming the rebel groups in Syria for years to bring down Bashar Al-Assad would press the Trump administration to develop a strategy mainly against the Syrian regime. It is doubtful if these governments are really serious about defeating terrorist groups in the Middle East as long as these groups don’t target their interests or citizens. But they have stretched their lines far and wide in the last six years because of benign neglect on the part of most of these governments. All have one common interest: namely, to get the United States militarily involved in Syria. It is a trap that former president Obama avoided. American military involvement in Syria is a very risky affair for it could lead to direct confrontation with Russia. In such a case that the Trump administration decides to get involved militarily in Syria, some congressmen believe such involvement would need congressional authorisation.

After weeks of dithering and hesitation, the Trump administration has seen it politically expedient to strike Syria. Indeed, the ratings of President Trump, as commander-in-chief, rose after the attack compared to his poor ratings prior to sending Tomahawk missiles raining on a Syrian air force base. Surprisingly, a former senior American diplomat, Nicholas Burns, the former US undersecretary of state, saw the attack as “a welcome return of American global leadership” and went further in claiming that the “decisive action” taken by Trump “has restored some of America’s lost credibility in a violent, unstable Middle East”. He called the decision to attack Syria “the most consequential national security decision to date” by President Trump.

The most surprising reaction to the American strikes came from within the Arab world. Forget about Arab solidarity, or the Arab Joint Defence Agreement of April 1950 whereby an attack on the signatories — and Syria was one of them and still is party to the agreement — would be considered an attack on all. The White House said Saturday, 8 April, that the Saudi monarch “reaffirmed strong Saudi support for the United States military strike against the Sayrat Airfield in Syria and thanked the president for his courageous action, which both agreed was a necessary response to the horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent lives”.

Let us recall both that the American strikes led to the death of nine innocent Syrian civilians and that the international coalition against IS killed more than 20 innocent civilians in bombing raids two days after the Tomahawk strikes in Syria. In the calculus of death at work in Syria, Iraq and Libya for the last few years, no one could claim innocence — not the Americans, not the Arabs, not regional powers, nor Western governments. The Tomahawk cruise missile attacks in Syria have come to blur the situation and could lead the United States on a war path with no end in sight. President Vladimir Putin, called the American attacks an “aggression against a sovereign state” and a “violation of international law”. It remains to seen what kind of entente — if any — is possible between Washington and Moscow as far as resolving the intractable situation in Syria is concerned.

Dear President Trump: never lose sight of the American experience in Vietnam. And please avoid being dragged into conflicts thousands of miles from American shores. Do not get mired in sectarian confrontations in the Middle East.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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