Syria suddenly became high on the White House agenda after the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack on April 4. In a matter of 48 hours, President Donald Trump’s administration switched positions from suggesting it’s up to the Syrian people to decide their future to asserting that the reign of President Bashar al-Assad’s family is “coming to an end”.
That ambivalent approach has led allies and foes to wonder where the US stands on Syria.
Trump is putting to use his shock-and-awe campaign style in international affairs, with the White House having tested Russian President Vladimir Putin’s commitment to the Syrian regime in recent weeks. The purpose of this test is to elevate the moral cost of supporting Assad.
Asked by reporters if Moscow knew in advance about the chemical attack, the US President gave a classic Trump answer: “I think it’s certainly possible; I think it’s probably unlikely,” before deferring to the “Pentagon group that does that kind of work” (mind you, that’s the Central Intelligence Agency’s job, but that’s another story).
I tend to believe the US strike on the Shayrat airbase was a message to Moscow rather than to Damascus. As Richard Nixon did before him, Trump is aiming for a Sino-Russian split. While having “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake”, the US President told his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping about the Tomahawk cruise missiles that were hitting Syria. Soon after, Trump retracted earlier statements that China is a currency manipulator, while Beijing abstained from voting on a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an investigation into the chemical attack.
‘All about internal politics’
Yet, the US and Russia have not yet reached the point of no return and are unlikely to. Most of the warmongering background noise is about internal politics in both countries; Putin wants to look strong at home and defying Washington is the ultimate national sport, while Trump is eager to gain much-needed anti-Putin credentials. Both leaders will get over this at some point.
However, as Rex Tillerson, H R McMaster and Nikki Haley are taking turns to convey a non-consistent Syria policy, the Pentagon cautiously seeks a balance between striking a tough tone and averting an unintended military impact. For now, at least, the US-Russian tension has not affected the Pentagon priority of defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). To the dismay of Arab allies, Washington has been focusing on Russia, not Iran, which is another indication that the endgame for the Trump administration is Russia’s calculus and not altering the dynamics of the Syrian war.
If the US continues to walk towards a collision course with Moscow in Syria, the Pentagon will ultimately put a break on the White House rhetoric. The question is to what extent can the Trump administration push the buttons of Putin in Syria without affecting both the Raqqa battle and Iraq’s stability. A US decision to deter both Russian and Iranian influence in Syria will have significant repercussions in Iraq – the Pentagon’s highest priority in the Middle East.
While Trump enjoys keeping his cards close to his chest, leaving others to wonder if he is a genius or clueless, Washington has no intention of becoming directly involved in the Syrian war. The current mind game with Russia can last for a few weeks and dominate the news cycle, but it will become a dangerous game down the road if the US continues to lack a clear strategy in Syria. Tomahawk missiles are a good overreach attack, but their use is limited, especially if you pre-notify your targets.
The crucial question that should be asked is whether the Trump administration will put money where its mouth is in Syria. Otherwise misleading the Syrian people will only lead to further bloodshed.
Most of all, the strike on Shayrat airbase signalled the return of US foreign policy to Syria after the transitional period from Barack Obama. In that interim period, the trio – Russia, Turkey and Iran – obviously failed to fill the vacuum or achieve a breakthrough. The return of the US will undoubtedly alter the dynamics of the Astana and Geneva talks and will change the calculus of the trio who hold significant leverage in Syria.
If the US continues to confront Russia politically, Ankara will side with Washington whereas Tehran will get closer to Moscow, while a US re-engagement with Russia will to an extent sideline both Turkey and Iran.
Misleading the Syrian people
On the domestic level, Assad’s hopes of a US-Russian deal to his benefit are fading, and the US strike was rather a needed wake-up call that there are limits to violence and the clock is ticking to compromise.
Yet, once again, Trump gave us another flip-flop on April 12 when asked in an interview about whether Assad must go to reach peace: “Are we insisting on it? No. But I do think it’s going to happen at a certain point.”
In return, while the Syrian opposition has been betting on a US deterrence of Iran, it was heartened by Trump’s moves – yet exaggerating the extent to which he is willing to intervene. It will realise soon that Trump’s attention span on any issue, especially in foreign policy, is short-term and he will most likely shift to his domestic agenda sooner or later. The concern is that Trump is drawing his own blurred redline by acting beyond a chemical attack.
The only two viable options to oust Assad from power are either by launching a military campaign or engaging Moscow to transit him out of power. The Trump administration needs to level with its allies that while its posture has changed, the US strategy remains the same with limited options in Syria unless it decides to move towards direct military involvement. Hence, the crucial question that should be asked is whether the Trump administration will put money where its mouth is in Syria. Otherwise misleading the Syrian people will only lead to further bloodshed.
Joe Macaron is a policy analyst at the Arab Center, Washington DC.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.