Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Reversal of fortunes

From echoes of George Orwell’s 1984, domestic sentiment in the US has bowed to Trump’s “Wag the Dog” strikes on Syria

Reversal  of fortunes
Reversal of fortunes

Considering that US President Donald Trump had repeatedly opposed any unilateral US military action against Syria when his predecessor, Barack Obama, was in office, his swift response to charges that the Syrian army used chemical weapons to bomb opponents in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province last week raised many eyebrows.

In September 2013, Obama seriously considered attacking Syria following allegations that the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad had used chemical weapons against civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Trump tweeted in response: “To our very foolish leader, do not attack Syria – if you do many very bad things will happen & from that fight the US gets nothing!”

Obama, despite declaring that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime was a “red line” which, if crossed, would demand American military action, backed down at the last moment, angering both European and Arab Gulf allies, who have always seen the confrontation in Syria as a proxy war against Iran.

Instead, Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, reached a deal with Russia that forced Damascus to get rid of its chemical weapons arsenal and ship it abroad.

But facing sharp criticism at home over allegations by Democrats that his victory in the US presidential elections was a result of a covert Russian operations against his rival, Hillary Clinton, as well as several other failures, it seems that Trump felt he needed another approach and decided to order limited airstrikes against a Syrian air base 6 April, after notifying the Russians who rushed to move their fighter jets from Al-Shayrat airbase.

Adding to the surprise of observers were Trump’s repeated statements, even before taking office on 20 January, that his priority was not to remove Al-Assad, unlike for Obama, but to fight terrorism, principally the Islamic State group (ISIS). For this purpose, Trump said he was willing to work with Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to defeat ISIS.

Only five days before the sudden US strikes, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, told reporters: “You pick and choose your battles. And when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” 

Haley’s words were echoed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who observed that same day, 30 March, while on an official visit to Turkey: “I think the… longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”

However, as soon as reports on the Syrian attack, killing nearly 100 people, were out, and television screens were filled with horrible images of children dying for not being able to breathe following the chemical weapons attack, Trump clearly saw an opportunity to change the mood in Washington, and to win praise as a strong world leader.

Trump’s supporters and critics quickly rushed to praise his action in Syria, including his rival in the recent presidential elections, Clinton. Many other world leaders, including in Europe, that have largely been unfriendly to Trump, also described the move as “legitimate” to deter a Syrian leader who has been committing war crimes against his people for over six years.

Trump employing a “Wag the Dog” strategy, in which he highlights his leadership on an international crisis to divert attention from domestic political problems, is reminiscent of President Bill Clinton’s decision to attack Iraq in 1998 as impeachment clouds were building around his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky.

In the movie, “Wag the Dog,” the White House launched a needless military operation to convince the American people that innocent Albanian children, including an attractive girl carrying a cat, were in great danger. In reality, the girl was an actor posing before a green screen that allowed scenes of fiery ruins to be inserted as background.

Confirming that the strike was mainly aimed for domestic purposes and to divert attention from his own trouble at home, top US officials repeated that the military action was not aimed against Russia as a punishment for its support for Al-Assad. While White House officials did not exclude the possibility of more strikes, they insisted that would only happen in case Assad carried out another chemical weapons attack, and denied that the firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles, each at a cost of $1.4 million, signalled the beginning of a campaign to oust the Syrian president.

The purpose of the American strike was twofold; first, to send a message to the Syrian government and its allies that, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, “the president is willing to take decisive action when called for,” and in particular when confronted with evidence of a chemical attack from which the United States could not “turn away, or turn a blind eye.” The other purpose, according to a US military spokesperson, to “reduce the Syrian government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons”. 

Moreover, the honeymoon policy the Trump administration had only recently announced on regime change in Syria is over. “It’s very, very possible, and I will tell you, it’s already happened, that my attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much,” President Trump told reporters. Secretary Tillerson went further: “It would seem there would be no role for him [Assad] to govern the Syrian people.”

Such a reversal in policy fundamentals and direction in such a short period of time was difficult to comprehend or accept by many American observers and analysts. Donald Trump didn’t simply deviate slightly off course, but rather did a complete 180-degree turn.

The previous policy of avoiding entanglement in the internal affairs of Syria in favour of defeating ISIS and improving relations with Russia had been replaced by a fervent embrace for regime change, direct military engagement with the Syrian armed forces, and a confrontational stance vis-à-vis the Russian military presence in Syria.

Normally, such major policy change could only be explained by a new reality driven by verifiable facts. The alleged chemical weapons attack against Khan Sheikhoun was not a new reality; chemical attacks had been occurring inside Syria on a regular basis, despite international efforts to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons capability, undertaken in 2013, that played a central role in forestalling American military action at that time.

International investigations of these attacks produced mixed results, with some being attributed to the Syrian government (something the Syrian government vehemently denies), and the majority being attributed to anti-regime fighters, in particular those affiliated with Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate.

In a column Friday, The Nation’s Greg Grandin pointed out that with the one assault, the president successfully splintered the Democratic resistance, won the praise of the media and changed the story of his friendly relations with the Kremlin.

Grandin also referenced the New York Times’ reporting that “The Pentagon informed Russian military officials, through its established de-confliction channel, of the strike before the launching of the missiles, the official said, with American officials knowing when they did that that Russian authorities may well have alerted the Assad regime.” 

“In other words,” Grandin wrote, “the object of Trump’s Tomahawks was not Syria’s capacity to deploy gas, but domestic liberal opponents who base their resistance to Trump entirely on the premise that he is anti-American because he is too close to Putin.”

Similarly, New Republic columnist and Georgia Southern University assistant professor Jared Yates Sexton outlined how the strikes have effectively changed everything in Washington. 

“War changes [the] entire conversation and narrative. Always has, always will. Instead of links of Russian suspicions, we have footage of missiles launching. Russia was warned, and might have been involved in the gassing, they had enough time to move troops. Yet, Trump ‘stood up’ to Putin,” Sexton wrote. “Next couple of days we’re going to see media go into War-Mode, which is just slobbering over our armed forces expertise. There’ll be no time to talk about Nunes, the Nuclear Option, Russian investigations. Now it’s Trump — Commander-In-Chief,” he added.

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