by David Lando
Kahn Sheikhun, an otherwise anonymous town in the province of Idlib in northwest Syria, was recently engraved in the pages of history. On Tuesday, April 4, a chemical attack was executed on the small, 50,000 strong town, viciously killing more than 70 people and injuring hundreds. The immediate suspect: Assad and his allies. Eyes are now turning towards the White House. What will Trump’s response be? After American ships attacked an airbase controlled by Assad on the night of April 6, we have some indication. Still, it is uncertain whether this attack is a form of lip-service, conducted as a gesture to deter Assad from future attacks, or a wholesome change in attitude by the Trump administration.
My immediate reaction is that the response will not continue much further. However, when we speak about the American response and policy, it is difficult to make any certain predictions. This is, surprisingly, not primarily because of Trump’s fickle way of practicing politics. Rather, it is also a factor of the way American presidents traditionally make such decision. I contend that in order to analyze what the consequences of the recent U.S. attack are, and which decisions Trump is likely to take, we should adopt a holistic view, ranging beyond the here and now. To understand what stands behind the decision to attack and the likelihood of future attacks we need to look at the past and future, not only the present. And, we need to see the decision whether to attack as a combination of American domestic and foreign policy.
Samantha Power, the Obama administration U.N. Ambassador, published her influential book, A Problem From Hell, in 2002, six years before her appointment to the role. There, Power examines the response U.S. administrations had to genocide during the 20th century. In the preface, she wrote the following condemning words:
Before I began exploring America’s relationship with genocide, I used to refer to U.S. Policy toward Bosnia as a “failure.” I have changed my mind. It is daunting to acknowledge, but this country’s consistent policy of nonintervention in the face of genocide offers sad testimony not to a broken American political system but to one that is ruthlessly effective. The system, as it stands now, is working. No U.S. president has even made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.
These are, in all views, remarkable words from a soon-to-be U.S. cabinet official. More to the point, it is no doubt that this attitude of frustration from inaction guided Power in her senior role in the Obama administration. To allow genocide, for Power, will be to include her name in the pages of her book, placing her among those that she so determinately attacked for inaction.
Fast-forward to the immediate hours after it became public that a chemical attack occurred in Kahn Sheikhun. The main U.S. official to be targeted by commentators was no longer an official at all. It was Obama that drew the most vicious attacks for his own inability to prevent this atrocity. As is remembered by all, Obama dealt with a similar situation in 2013, when Assad forces killed 281 people in Ghouta, Damascus, using the chemical agent Sarin. The attack, which transgressed Obama’s “red-line”, compelled him to choose between two options: attack Assad, as he had promised to do in case of such transgression, or back out. He chose an in-between strategy: to compel Assad to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroy his stockpiles of chemical weapons.
Now, after the attack on Kahn Sheikhun, Obama’s move is revealed as a failure. Obama himself is portrayed as na?ve, and in this case, incompetent. Samantha Power, as a senior Obama official, now has to start writing a new edition of her famous book. The last chapter will be an autobiography.
How does this influence Trump? U.S. administrations are traditionally heavily influenced by the actions of their predecessors. American politics is in this sense reactive, as they are based on reaction to previous “mistakes”. Trump’s politics are no different. He campaigned on an attitude that if we try very hard to summarize in one sentence will be: “whatever Obama did was wrong, and I will do the opposite”. Hence the insistence with repealing Obamacare, drastically reforming the federal budget, and changing the White House’s middle east strategy. Confronted with a chemical attack, Trump cannot afford to take the same steps as Obama did before; that is, if he is to fulfill his wish to differentiate between himself and Obama. After failing to repeal Obamacare, Trump is confronted by the harsh reality that change requires hard work, and he may see a harsh response as an opportunity to make good his campaign promise to be different than Obama. Trump’s decision is therefore informed by the past, at least as much as it is informed by what consequences would follow a U.S. attack on Syria.
There are several questions regarding the future that have informed Trump’s decision to attack the Syrian air-force base, and will further inform his decision whether to continue operations on a more grand-scale basis.
The first set of questions regard what the long-term effects of a response may be. First in line of questions required to understand whether the U.S. will escalate its response beyond the attack on the Syrian air-force is what the objective of the attack was. In his brief statement after the attack, Trump noted that “it is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” The objective was therefore prevention and deterrence. If so, Trump and his advisors will try to minimize power to the extent that it achieves this objective. If the somewhat limited attack on the air-force base will prove to be enough, then no further action is likely to follow.
Deterrence is thus the military objective, but is that the only thing on Trump team’s mind? That’s unlikely. It is more probable that the attack was as much a foreign policy measure as it was a military measure. Therefore, there are other, more covert considerations at play.
It is possible that the attack was a measure to reestablish the U.S. as a central player in the Syrian conflict. The peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, are notable for the absence of the U.S. in the negotiations table. In the U.S.’s absence, Russia emerges from these talks as the major power broker in the Middle East. This diverged drastically from the political balance after 1967, where the U.S. was always the go-to guy for any initiative in the Middle East. The attack may have been an attempt by Trump to say: “We are still the strongest power in the world, and our interests in Syria go beyond defeating ISIS”. If this is true, then the deterrence logic, that the U.S. will use minimal power as long as it achieves deterrence, is no longer relevant. The U.S. will need more than launching 56 rockets on a sparsely occupied air-force base. To achieve regional importance, the U.S. will need to assert itself as a constant player in the power game in Syria. At the moment, Russia, Turkey, and Iran are the major players, while the U.S. is more involved in the fight with ISIS, remaining ambiguous at best towards the fight between Assad and the Syrian rebels. To reposition itself as a player in this fight, the U.S. will need to show constant involvement, which will require more attacks.
Final outlook on the future regards Trump’s dynasty. While usually this will be a central factor for decision makers in the U.S., it seems to have amplified importance in regard to Trump. To make his dynasty respectable, Trump needs to make a serious foreign policy change. U.S. presidents are famous for wanting to focus on domestic policy, and eventually involving themselves heavily in foreign policy. LBJ, and the Great Society that was sidelined for Vietnam is a good example. Presidents put a lot of emphasis on how they will be remembered, Trump is no different. From the moment a president steps into the White House he starts building the narrative that future generations will tell of him. This is one of those moments that will take center stage in the story.
Besides looking to the present and the future, we should also focus our analysis of the recent attack, and the probability that there would be future attacks, on domestic and foreign policy as they currently stand.
In the domestic sphere, Trump’s aura is rapidly diminishing. According to Gallup Poll, his approval rates among adult American citizens is at 41 percent. More worrying for Trump is that his approval rates among Republican voters are also declining: an eight point drop from 89 percent to 81 percent since the beginning of his presidency. This is related to Trump’s inability to fulfill some of his campaign promises. The Obamacare sustained the House vote, and Trump’s attempt to replace it is failing badly. No one knows how Trump is going to fund the wall with Mexico. The Muslim ban is until now unsuccessful. And the Republican-controlled Senate had to change the law in order to confirm Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court. Together, these things point to two lessons. First, that Trump is failing to implement some of his most important campaign promises. Second, that this is happening partly because a few influential Republicans are turning against him.
The attack on the Syrian base is a fight against this downward current. Trump, by attacking Syria, had rattles the playing field. Without hesitation (or, some would say, due contemplation) Trump utilized substantial military force in a foreign country. He showed clear disregard to the “normal” way in which decisions like these are made. This reminds many Trump voters why they voted for him. Trump was always portrayed as the guy who will cease respecting traditional decision-making etiquette, and “get things done”. The attack was exactly that. In a moment of determination, Trump surprised many; Assad and his ally Putin included. This is bound to please Trump’s supporters who started to wonder whether Trump was really the wildcard he presented himself to be.
The attack will also help Trump with his relationship with some Republican dissenters, most notably John McCain. McCain is starting to look like the main figure in the Republican party in opposition to Trump. Conversely, Trump’s decision to attack in Syria got immediate support from McCain. Following the attack, McCain and Lindsey Graham (another oppositional figure) issued the following statement: “unlike the previous administration, President Trump confronted a pivotal moment in Syria and took action. For that, he deserves the support of the American people.” This little token of party unity is what Trump needs to get support for his domestic policies. An attack on Syria is therefore likely to prove beneficial at home.
Finally, by attacking Assad’s forces Trump blatantly deified Putin. This will help Trump curb concerns over his ties with Russia, amid increasing domestic pressures to investigate them. As Jeffery Goldberg, the editor of the Atlantic, wrote in a Tweet: “One way to prove you are not a Russian puppet is to attack a Russian puppet.”
The attack on the Syrian base also had some immediate foreign policy effects.
First, it signaled to worried American allies that the U.S. may still take assertive actions to uphold its interests and values. This is not to be taken lightly. Obama’s foreign policy was marred by claims that he does not care about U.S. allies, especially those in the Middle East. His famous claim that some U.S. allies, including several European states and Saudi Arabia, are “free riders”, signaled to some allies that they cannot rely on the backing of the U.S., not least in situations that would require military force. Trump, for his part, did little until now to calm these concerns. His proposed cuts to the foreign aid budget, along with protectionist proclamations have worried U.S. allies that the U.S. would not stand by them. The attack on Syria changed this. So much so, that it is difficult to find a U.S. ally not pleased by this attack. Israel needs active American forces in the area to guarantee its security. Saudi Arabia are pleased that the U.S. took an active stand against the Iran-backed Assad regime. And Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council,
wrote that the “U.S. strikes show needed resolve”.
The attack also conveyed an important message to Iran. The message is that the U.S. is willing and able to uphold international obligations with force. In American and its allies’ eyes, Iran is considered a central threat to the stability of the Middle East. They support Hamas and Hezbollah, enemies of Israel, the Houthis, the enemies of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and they continuously show their willingness to challenge the U.S. with the odd missile test and inflammatory proclamation. The attack in Syria signaled to the Iranians that the U.S. may be willing to exert its power against them as well if they push the U.S. too much. If nothing else, it will give the Iranians second thoughts about whether to violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that halted Iranian development of nuclear military capabilities.
The Israeli Prime Minster, Benyamin Netanyahu, released a statement following the U.S. attack on Syria, which I believe encapsulates the importance of the attack to the American foreign policy. It reads: “Israel fully supports President Trump’s decision, and hopes that this message of resolve in the face of the Assad regime’s horrific actions will resonate not only in Damascus, but in Teheran, Pyongyang, and elsewhere.”
The U.S. attack on Syria thus involves many players other than U.S. and Syria. The considerations of whether to attack Syria further, and the consequences of the recent attack, may only be understood through a holistic approach that incorporates the past and the future, as well as domestic and foreign policy considerations in the present.
David Lando – International law professional. He can be followed on Twitter at: @dlando2