This article was published in the May 2017 of Der Parvenu.
On April 7th, the US launched a missile strike against a Syrian airbase suspected of having carried out the chemical attack which killed more than 80 civilians near Idlib, the day before. These strikes show that a major shift is occurring. New alliances are struck and old strategies are abandoned. Will Trump’s access to power lead to the end of the Syrian civil war? An analysis by Philippe Pernot
“Assad has been crossing a lot of red lines”, declared Trump to justify the strike, hours after 59 Tomahawk missiles struck the Shayrat airfield near Homs. The government-held base was suspected of having carried out the chemical attack, but it seems likely that an American strike was planned in advance, and that the use of Sarin gas against civilians on April 6th was just an excuse to the Trump administration. This comes after much muscle-flexing by the candidate, then president-elect, then president Trump, in regards to Syria. But it indicates that the new administration will not seek only to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”, as was claimed by Trump during the campaign, but also attack Assad. This, in turns, indicates a sudden and decisive shift in the Syrian civil war.
“America first” means “diplomacy second”: Trump does not care about Syrian children
This strike against Syrian military will probably not be the last. But the frequency of US interventions against Assad remains a speculation: will strikes be carried out uniquely after chemical attacks by the government forces, or will they become “business as usual” on the frontlines? In any case: everything has changed. Trump has shown that he, unlike Obama, will not hesitate when dealing with red lines, and that retaliation will be imminent. He has made clear that the US will act independently of the objectives of its allies inside Combined Joint Task Force: Operation Inherent Resolve (the NATO and Saudi-led coalition against ISIS in Syria and Iraq). That the US will act independently of the Russian and Iranian “menace”. The strike on April 7th has concretized Trump’s motto “America First”: the US will take all necessary measures to ensure national security and interests, no matter what it will cost in diplomacy.
But let us not be blinded by Trump’s intentions: the death of dozens of Syrian children in the chemical attack is without a doubt NOT his motive behind the strike. The ban against Syrian immigration to the US is a clear message that Trump does not care about international humanitarian law and civilian welfare. Instead, it seems that Trump, after being humiliated by Putin on several occasions, is convinced that a geopolitical shift is needed. The declarations of Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, before the General Assembly, demonstrate that Trump is willing, just as his predecessors, to use the UN as a tool. Nothing is new here: the US will use international institutions to further national interests. But what is new is that the US will not await international recognition to act. This is a strong message to UN and NATO: the US will not wait for your approval.
“America first” means “Russia second”: an escalation of the “new cold war”
Russia, Iran and Syria have condemned the US strike as an “aggression”, but did not limit their threats to verbal interjections. After being notified of the strike, Putin has suspended the “Memorandum on the Prevention of Incidents and Ensuring the Safety of Aviation Operations during the Operations in Syria with the US”, a mechanism of non-aggression between Russian and American Air force operations. The signal is clear: if the US moves another kingpin on the chessboard, Russia will retaliate, now that diplomacy has failed. The “new cold war” between the two powers might not be fought through proxies anymore.
Russian military retaliations could be embodied by an alliance with Turkey against America’s favorite allies, the Kurds. Erdogan’s anti-Kurdish vendetta against the YPG had been frustrated by the interposition of US Special Forces last month, and the Turkish president has been moving closer to Russia. Turkish forces have retreated: will Russia be given the role of destroying the Kurds? If so, a direct confrontation between Russia and the nearly 1.000 US Special Forces helping the Kurds forces would be almost inevitable.
But a “hot war” between Russia and the USA in Syria seems unlikely, even though some Trump advisors have called for action against Putin. Full-scale diplomatic efforts will probably be triggered before it gets this far. If the chemical attack was a ploy intended to test the new administration, Putin will have understood that Trump will not hesitate, and that an escalation is possible. He might thus be willing to contain Assad’s dreams of chemical Armageddon, and get the conflict back to the statu quo ante. Or, a lot more likely scenario, the situation will escalate further, with – possibly –some skirmishes between Russian and American forces. But a full-scale war between both players is unlikely, as their military capabilities are already stretched and the public opinion of these countries probably not intent on Mutual Assured Destruction. Thus, diplomacy could be needed to appease the conflict between Russia and the US, leading to a possible general ceasefire, and, why not, an end of the war.
“America first” means “the World second”: Trump could set the Middle-East and Europe abraze
But such a happy end seems unlikely, because Russia and the US are not the only actors at play, and because the other actors don’t necessarily fear a full escalation between Russia and the USA, as Syria is a “proxy” playground for many. Turkey’s main objective of the destruction of Kurdish independence movements in Turkey and Syria, and Erdogan will support any actor enabling him to do so. A stalemate between Russia and the US is of no interest to Turkey, as a compromise might very well recognize Kurdistan as a legitimate state. Thus, Turkey’s interest is in the continuation of the war, as long as Kurdistan can be destroyed.
The Sunni Gulf States hate Assad and his ally, Khamenei. Both are leaders of Shia Islam in the Middle-East, and are accordingly dangerous to the Gulf states which are threatened by Shia uprisings. Shia populations in the Gulf states are oppressed politically and economically, and have already tried to revolt against their Sunni governments during the 2011 Arab spring. Thus, it is primordial for Gulf States’ internal security to “contain” Shia forces. This is the main reason why Gulf states support the Sunni opposition (including Islamist groups) against Assad. But they also fight against ISIS over the hegemony over Sunni Islam in the region, as the “Caliphate” has challenged Saudi’s status as guardian of Sunni holy sites. And oil, never forget oil: ISIS is threatening to weaken the Gulf state’s dominance on the export of “black gold”. A peaceful solution in Syria including Assad (and Iranian influence through him) would be unacceptable for these reasons. By hitting a Syrian air base, Trump has demonstrated that he aligns with Gulf interests, and his presidency could reinforce tensions between Iran and the Gulf states.
Israel is another archenemy of Iran, which has some 10,000 troops on the ground and is supported by the military wing of the Hezbollah (a Shia Lebanese political party and militia, strongly linked to Iran). Iranian Revolutionary Guards from the Quds Force and Hezbollah militants fight side-to-side with Syrian government troops. But Israel admitted striking Hezbollah positions by the end of March, and gave no hint of a reduction of operations—which means that an escalation between Israel and the Hezbollah (and Iran) is looming ahead. Hezbollah threatened to hit Israeli border towns in retaliation, whilst some conservative Israeli members of Knesset have called for an invasion of Lebanon, the home of the Hezbollah. Trump, as a close ally of Netanyahu, certainly plays a catalyzing effect in this proxy war, and could encourage further Israeli action—and thus, lead to a third Lebanese war.
But worse- in February, Michael Flynn, the former head of National Security, threatened to retaliate against Iran’s missile test with nothing less than war: “we’re officially putting Iran on notice”, he stated. This comes in a regain of tensions around Iran seem logical. Trump has been a notorious opponent to the 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear program, and his ban on immigration comprises Iranians. But Trump is above all an ally of Saudi Arabia, which is waging war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, and has cut off diplomatic relations to the Islamic Republic after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was burnt in retaliation of the execution of Shia scholar.
On a regional level, Trump’s policy of hitting Assad and containing Russia could thus fuel an escalation of the numerous proxy wars which are at play in Syria. Entering in an open conflict with Russia, Turkey and Iran, sponsoring an Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the repression of Shia populations in the Gulf states—these are all possible consequences of Trump’s election. And finally, let us not forget that the muscle-flexing with Russia could have disastrous consequences in Europe, as a US victory in Syria could encourage a Russian move against Ukraine, the Baltic States, or European oil and gas importations through the Nord Stream pipeline.
Thus, to those who claim that Trump’s move in Syria was clever and that his policy could lead to peace: stop dreaming, Trump will most certainly bring us nearer to chaos because of his disregard of diplomacy and dialogue. The war in Syria will only be ended once the West understands what Russia and Iran need, and which guarantees we can give them in exchange for appeasement. Obama’s policy was blinded by anti-Russian sentiment, but made limited efforts to ease tensions. But the new administration is not blinded by an ideological filter. It is simply blind to geopolitical realities and to the complexity of the situation. As often before, we’re back to looking sadly at the USA and muttering: “it’s not that easy, Sam…”.