The Leader of the Free World
The Arab Spring began as a spark in Tunisia and extended to the entire MENA region, causing major disorder and a political meltdown of authoritarian regimes from Libya and Egypt, but a firm stand began in Syria by the beleaguered regime, where a social uprising has been transformed into a bloody civil war. By far, the ongoing conflict in Syria is the most brutal because a “civil war” has been replaced by an international war, due to the fact that every party involved is getting outside support:
- Bashar Al-Assad receives Iranian and Russian military and financial support;
- The Syrian Free Army receives US and individual support from Gulf Cooperation Council countries;
- Islamic State supports itself from illegal sales of oil and economic extraction of conquered territories, but has received financial and in-kind support from outside benefactors in the Muslim World and elsewhere, not to mention a steady stream of international volunteers.
“President Trump was expecting the Chinese President for a one on one meeting in order to get to know each other, while pushing for a rebalanced trade relation and an understanding on North Korea’s missile tests, which represents a shared interest of the two powers in light of the regional anxieties surrounding the ongoing development.”
On April 4th, reports and footage started to appear in mass-media of a possible chemical weapon attack launched by the Syrian government's air forces in Idlib province, near the Turkish border. The official response, given by the Russian government, was that the air force accidentally struck a cache of chemical weapons used by terrorists. Very recent analyses have lent credence to the claim, such as MIT Professor Theodore Postol’s remote analysis released on April 11, though it is too early for authoritative conclusions regarding attribution. Various world leaders expressed their shock and outrage, while the UN Security Council has gathered in order to respond to the horrific attack which can be seen as a war crime: US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Hailey presented photographs of women and children affected by the sarin gas. At the same time, the world turned its eyes to the White House and remembered the situation in 2013: a gas attack had taken place in Damascus’ suburbs, the UN sent investigators who were attacked and could not conduct their analysis on-site, while the White House backed down from a military strike (a joint US - UK - France air operation to launch 200 Tomahawks) and, instead, President Obama allowed the Russians to oversee the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons. Following the current sarin strike, some voices pegged the Russians as being responsible for this because they had previously guaranteed the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons.
The world needs a response to this attack on innocent civilians, but we must also acknowledge the current situation: there is a new President sitting in the Oval office. An outsider, without a military background, a businessman with a total lack of political experience in matters of foreign affairs.
At the moment of the attack, President Trump was expecting the Chinese President for a one on one meeting in order to get to know each other, while pushing for a rebalanced trade relation and an understanding on North Korea’s missile tests, which represents a shared interest of the two powers in light of the regional anxieties surrounding the ongoing development. After the attack, the US military, under the supervision of National Security Advisor Henry McMaster, Secretary of Defense Mattis and General Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefed the President and formulated a plan to strike at the Syrian air base of Shayrat. But, going through with it required Presidential consent and the Commander-in-Chief was not sure of the plan. According to Politico, Trump sat on it for 3 days without giving an order to execute or halt any kind of operations, because he was considering two major elements: the campaign trail promises of non-interventionism and de-escalation of American entanglements in the Middle East and the image of weakness Obama had acquired after he did not reinforce the “red line” and passed responsibility to Congress.
The top 3 decision-makers under Trump – Dunford, Mattis and Tillerson – supported the idea of a missile strike on the air base and presented all their arguments in favor of that military measure in order to sanction the alleged perpetrator and deter the future use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians. By the time he received the Chinese delegation at Mar-a-Lago, the President gave the greenlight to a proportionate military strike: 59 Tomahawks to be launched by the US Navy based in the Persian Gulf. There is a precedent for such a pinpoint strike on a nation with whom the US is not in a declared state of war – Bill Clinton’s needling of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, which also saw Operation Desert Fox in 1998, during which 95 targets were struck over 4 days by 90 cruise missiles and 325 Tomahawks, also to a mixed chorus of approval and condemnation. It, too, was a decisive show of force that did not result in unwanted escalation. At the beginning of the operation, the Russian forces were informed about the future strike in order to retreat their military personnel from that base to avert an all-out war between the two powers. The missiles reached their targets and caused major damage to the air base. As a response, the Russian President accused US of interfering and violating the sovereignty of Syria and halted the air coordination agreement and the existing military hotline between the two states.
“Trump sat on the proposal for 3 days without giving an order to execute or halt any kind of operations, because he was considering two major elements: the campaign trail promises of non-interventionism and de-escalation of American entanglements in the Middle East and the image of weakness Obama had acquired after he did not reinforce the “red line” and passed responsibility to Congress.”
Taking such a decision, President Trump also sent a warning-in-disguise to the North Korean regime, which was substantiated by the US Navy heading in its direction in a show of force – the Carl Vinson Strike Group was going to maintain the status-quo in the region in case of any escalation with possible military outcome.
Performing an assessment about this difficult and policy-shifting decision, Trump managed to strike politically, both in foreign and domestic theatres, in order to provide a straightforward demonstration of his position as the leader of the free world, under the context of the human rights agenda that lends moral legitimacy to US primacy. He entered the Oval Office with one agenda, the product of preferences and campaign strategy, but realpolitik was the decisive factor. Also, another widely received message was sent to US Allies present in all regions – Israel, Japan, South Korea and NATO – because they are the ones who were worried about the new President and his new policy, but the strike gave them hope that they can rely on the continued firmness of established 70 years old partnerships. With this strike, a new world opens up ahead and a major message will be sent from NATO's Extraordinary Summit to be held in Brussels, on May 25th, where we will see the Wilsonian principles back on track.