US President Donald Trump earned both cheers and boos around the world for ordering a surgical attack of 59 Tomahawk missiles on the Syrian government-controlled Shavrat Air Base on April 6, 2017. This was not the first American military involvement in the six-year-long Syrian civil war, but the first attack on the Syrian government forces. All previous attacks had been directed at Islamic State forces – part of a disjointed war against that group.
The attack was allegedly designed to cause only marginal damage to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s air force and no direct damage to Russian forces who use the air base. Rather, it was to serve as a warning to Assad for allegedly using sarin gas against civilians in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria two days earlier and to the Russians for allegedly letting the attack happen – and then enabling (or participating in) a follow-up attack on the hospital where some of the victims of the gas attack had been sent for treatment.
Trump admitted being driven to the attack by the horrific pictures of Syrian children who had been among the victims of the gas attack.
Those who are cheering, including Israel, are doing so because they believe that there are red lines, which if crossed by international players, cannot be left without a suitable international reaction of one sort or another. The red line allegedly crossed by Assad was the use of chemical weapons – in this case against Syrian civilians. This was after he had agreed to put Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons under international supervision and to its complete destruction in accordance with a schedule devised by Russia and the United States in September 2013 and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. The deadline for the destruction was the first half of 2014 – three years ago.
All this had resulted from a previous chemical attack by Assad’s forces on civilians in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August 2013. Then, too, Assad was accused of using sarin gas.
If the Syrian government was responsible for using chemical weapons in an attack against Khan Sheikhoun, it was clearly in breach of its commitments to destroy all of its chemical weapons. If Russia was in any way involved – whether actively or passively – in the Syrian government’s alleged chemical attack, it too was in breach of an international agreement of which it was one of the brokers.
Both the Syrians and Russians denied that Assad’s forces had dropped chemicals on Khan Sheikhoun, claiming that gas had apparently been emitted when a Syrian air strike hit a “terrorist warehouse” containing “toxic substances.” They accused the United States of acting under false pretenses, stating that it should have waited until all the evidence on the ground had been investigated and the facts verified. They did not say who was to carry out the investigation. The Russians have been making all sorts of threatening noises, though nobody knows how far they are really willing or capable of going.
Those who are booing are doing so because they accept the Syrian and Russian version and suspect American motives. They include the Iranians and the North Koreans, who have crossed so many red lines, especially since Kim Jong-un became the leader in Pyongyang in December 2011, that everyone has stopped counting. Many observers believe that the American attack on the Shavrat air base was also a warning to North Korea, assuming there was any serious thought behind it.
There are several disturbing elements about this whole episode, beyond the visible evidence of what poison gas does to human beings, beyond the fact that there are political leaders who are willing to use chemical weapons, even against their own people in an effort to perpetuate their regime (Saddam Hussein was another such specimen) and that there are others who are willing to tolerate this activity if it happens to serve their geopolitical interests.
The first is that we don’t really know all the facts, though one is inclined to accept the American version, despite Trump’s flirtation with “alternative facts.”
Also disturbing is the fact that Donald Trump appears to have acted on the basis of an emotional reaction to some pictures, apparently without taking the Russian response into account and without a clear idea – not to mention a strategy – about what can be done to rid the world of the likes of Assad, without leading the countries who are to be freed from them into total chaos, hundreds of thousands of casualties and a refugee problem that nobody really knows what to do about (not even Trump himself). This is a worrying thought.
Toward the end of World War I, US president Woodrow Wilson had a vision for a new world order but was unable to convince Congress to support it. It went ahead without the United States. The current Middle East mess has its origins in those days.
Toward the end of World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a vision for a new world order and the United States led it with pride for several decades. These days, however, it seems to be going seriously off course, and lacks leadership or vision.
Trump, too, has a vision, but it is called “America first” (and f... the liberal elites second) and the Syrian episode isn’t really connected to it in any sort of logical way. At least Trump isn’t likely to come home with a “peace in our time” statement (as did Neville Chamberlain after the Munich agreement with Hitler in 1938, albeit before Hitler started using gas to kill people...) without shooting a single shot.
The shot was fired. The question is: what’s next?