Trump's Syria airstrikes were not humanitarian

Trump's Syria airstrikes were not humanitarian
Comment: With his presidency already dogged by controversy, Trump's failure to act after Assad's chemical attacks could have caused yet another rebellion within his own party, writes Sam Hamad.
7 min read
07 Apr, 2017
On Thursday, the US fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian military airbase [US navy]
Donald Trump has, in less than three months, done what Barack Obama refused to do in six years of his presidency - he has used the US military to hit Assad regime targets following its use of poison gas against civilians. 

Since the chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhun, in Syria's rebel-held Idlib province, events have unfolded with dizzying rapidity.

It was only on March 31 that the US ambassador to the UN painted a grim picture for Syrians, indicating that it was no longer even a rhetorical priority for the US to remove Assad from power. 

"You pick and choose your battles," Nikki Haley told reporters, regarding US policy in Syria. "It's about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out." 

Haley's statement was preceded by Trump's secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, repeating the seemingly innocuous Russian line that "the longer-term status of the Assad regime will be decided by the Syrian people". 

It's important to understand that these statements did not come amid any kind of call among the international community for military intervention against Assad. The comments were geared more towards the phoney Russian-dominated "peace process". 

So how did the Trump regime move from rejecting even diplomatic opposition to Assad to launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at regime targets?

They were in contrast with the tone struck by the UK who, far from arguing for any kind of military option, were merely advocating, as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson put it at a NATO summit, that "for the long-term good of the Syrian people there must be a transition away from the Assad regime, which has dealt so much death and destruction to the people of Syria".

Video: What did the missile strike actually hit?

So how did the Trump regime move from rejecting even diplomatic opposition to Assad to launching 59 Tomahawk Cruise missiles at regime targets?

How did Trump, who has been consistent in his will to see Assad as a lesser evil and conform to Russian hegemony in Syria, suddenly become the president who would take action against the regime? 

The key development was, of course, the mass murder of civilians using chemical weapons in an attack by Assad's airforce in Khan Sheikhun earlier this week.

At least 86 innocent people were killed, including 23 children and 16 women. Another 350 people were wounded. 

Republicans have never shared his sanguine attitude towards Russian hegemony over Syria, or his policy of tacitly supporting Assad

Immediately after the attack, horrific photos and videos of children choking and foaming at the mouth emerged.

Gruesome pictures of dead bodies - as documented in real time by the US airforce - were circulated, and the Trump administration began to sing a very different tune. 

Ambassador Nikki Haley did a complete u-turn on her previous position. She gave a passionate speech at the UN, during which she held up pictures of the victims of the attack, and spoke explicitly about the need for "collective action" against Assad. She even explicitly attacked Russia for its enabling of these kinds of atrocities, concluding that "Assad, Russia and Iran have no interest in peace". 

Meanwhile, Tillerson was similarly recanting, saying in direct contrast to his earlier statements; supportive of a continuing Assad presidency, that "it would seem there would be no role for him [Assad] to govern the Syrian people", also taking an uncharacteristic shot at Russia, warning the Putin regime to "consider carefully their continued support for the Assad regime" and talking about an "international coalition" to remove Assad. 

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But the most shocking response to the attacks at Khan Shaykhun was Trump's.

Given his previous support for Putin and, in a much more ambiguous sense, Assad, no one quite knew what to expect from Trump when faced with a massacre by the regime in Syria.

He had kept quiet as Free Aleppo fell to Russia and Iran's pro-Assad alliance. Given the capacity of his administration as the arch-manipulators of "post-truth" politics, who knew how Trump would respond?

Maybe he'd follow many of his supporters on the alt-right and alt-left, by denying Assad was responsible. Perhaps, following his modus operandi of Islamophobia, he'd seek to somehow justify it as per the narrative that Assad was "fighting terrorism".

But this was not to be the case. Trump's initial statement made no indication of policy shift, but by April 5, Trump was talking of the "big impact" that the attack had on him personally, saying that his "attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed".

In a clear reference to the "red lines" that Obama had set for intervention against Assad's murder machine at the beginning of the conflict - most notably the use of chemical weapons - Trump put it bluntly, "when you kill innocent babies with a chemical gas that is so lethal… that crosses many, many lines beyond a red line".

  Read more: Syrian airbase struck by US missiles: What's the damage?

The situation escalated quickly, and, by yesterday, it was reported that Trump was allegedly being briefed by his defence secretary, General Mattis. And it's the involvement of people such as Mattis that gets to the heart of Trump's shift in focus. 

Trump's pick of Mattis as defence secretary baffled many observers due to his staunch positions against Putin, Assad and Iran. It's almost certain that Mattis would have resigned if Trump had had chosen to do nothing in the face of the attack.

But Mattis' views are evident of another constituency that Trump has to reckon with: While it would be nice to think that Trump's seeming "conversion" to an anti-Assad stance was motivated by humanitarianism, the fact is that establishment Republicans have never shared his sanguine attitude towards Russian hegemony over Syria, or his policy of tacitly supporting Assad. 

With his presidency dogged by controversy, his failure to act on this could have caused yet another rebellion within his own party.

No-one quite knew what to expect from Trump when faced with a massacre by the regime in Syria

Following the attack, establishment Republican senator Marco Rubio criticised the Trump regime directly - and even implicated its conciliatory position in providing Assad with an incentive to carry out the attack. 

Rubio stated that he didn't think it was "coincidental" that Assad launched the attack just days after Tillerson's comments regarding it no longer being a US priority for him to step down.

Rubio's comments are very plausible in terms of seeking a motivation for why Assad launched the attack. Assad's agenda has always been exterminationist - the regime has been able to act with impunity for so long, buoyed by the backing of Russia and Iran, it's no wonder that it thought it could get away with another chemical attack on a rebel-held area.

And, make no mistake about it, while Trump's domestic policy remains generally horrific, his swift action against Assad here has demonstrated fully the criminally faint-hearted, pusillanimous nature of Obama's policy towards Syria in general - but particularly when he was faced with Assad's much worse use of chemical weapons in Ghouta in 2013. 

Assad will be rocked by this, but by no means devastated - his brutal genocide using conventional weapons will continue

Faced with the attack, it took Obama months to do nothing, and the Kerry-Lavrov deal simply enabled Russia to further cement its hegemony over the country, allowing Assad to use chemical weapons on numerous more occasions leading up to Khan Sheikhun.

However, while there's no doubt that Trump's intervention is timely, there's no doubt that it is solely punitive and that while it targeted the base from which Assad launched the attack, the scale of the strike is small.

This is not any kind of strike consistent with regime change or weakening the overall war effort of Assad against the rebels. Assad will be rocked by this, but by no means devastated - his brutal genocide using conventional weapons will continue.

The most positive aspect of the strike is that it could provide some balance in terms of negotiations - since Obama abandoned the Syrian opposition, Russia has dominated and weaponised the "peace process" to neutralise the rebellion and push the opposition into a corner. 

Now that the US has shown it is ready to use force, the opposition might be able to negotiate with some confidence - the US even gave Russia advance knowledge of the strike, dispelling the idea that any intervention against Assad might lead to a Third World War. 

But this would require a further evolution in Trump's stance towards Syria - one that sees the rebels as natural allies and recognises the reality of their struggle against Assad as being legitimate and tied to a popular revolution. 

Only their triumph can stop Assad's sectarian genocide and provide the fracturing of the logic that sustains IS and al-Qaeda. 

Whether it's about averting genocide or addressing "national security" issues, the US must expand its intervention to support the rebellion. 

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.