The US strike on the regime’s airbase in Syria resembles a surprising shift from Obama’s policy in having no direct military intervention in Syria. However, this incident seems to be a show of power more than a real change in the balance of power as the US sticks to prioritizing the fight against ISIS rather than ousting Assad.
In a surprising act, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said that the United States’ diplomatic policy on Syria, for now, is no longer focused on making Bashar al-Assad leave power, in a departure from the Obama administration’s initial and public stance on Assad’s fate.
“You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told a small group of reporters.
“We can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way the previous administration maybe did. Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes,” she said.
“Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that regarding Assad, “there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now.”
“We had an opportunity and we need to focus now on defeating ISIS,” Spicer said. “The United States has profound priorities in Syria and Iraq and we’ve made it clear that counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of ISIS, is foremost among those priorities.”
The US responded to this attack by a missile strike that targeted a military airbase belonging to Assad regime in Syria.
Two U.S. warships fired dozens of cruise missiles from the eastern Mediterranean Sea at the airbase controlled by Assad regime forces in response to the deadly poison gas attack in a rebel-held area on Tuesday, U.S. officials said.
“Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched,” Trump said.
Fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles were launched from the USS Porter and USS Ross around 8:40 p.m. EDT, striking multiple targets – including the airstrip, aircraft and fuel stations – on the Shayrat Air Base, which the Pentagon says was used to store chemical weapons.
The US, in addition, said it has put Bashar al-Assad on notice that it will take further military action if he uses chemical weapons again.
“The United States will no longer wait for Assad to use chemical weapons without any consequences. Those days are over,” the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, told a special session of the UN security council.
“The United States took a very measured step last night, Haley added. “We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary. ”
However, this move didn’t resemble any change in the US new policy towards Syria but was a warming for Assad regime to not use “prohibited weapons again” and a show of power by the US.
Strong act, but no change in the US policy
The U.S. cruise missile attack was a “one-off,” a U.S. defense official told Reuters, meaning it was expected to be a single strike with no current plans for escalation.
Secretary of state Rex Tillerson has insisted that the missile strikes – despite the sharp shift they represent from the previous stance taken by the Trump administration – are not, in fact, a change in US policy towards Syria:
“This clearly indicates the president is willing to take decisive action when called for.”
“I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There has been no change in that status.”
“I think it does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line and cross the line on violating commitments they’ve made and cross the line in the most heinous of ways.”
In addition, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, refused to discuss any next steps – military or diplomatic – as the world struggled to understand Trump’s policy on the crisis.
Spicer called the missile strike on the airbase “very decisive, justified and proportional” and entirely justified by “humanitarian purposes”.
But he demurred on saying whether Assad had to leave power, despite secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s insistence before the missile strike that diplomatic steps to oust Assad were already “under way”.
“At a minimum,” Spicer said, Assad had to agree “to abide by agreements not to use chemical weapons”, but he did not say what, if any, further objectives the US had in Syria, even as Trump came under renewed congressional pressure to present a comprehensive strategy for the US in the Syrian conflict.
What are Trump’s goals in Syria then?
As many analysts believe, Trump is no global humanitarian or friend to the Syrians, who have been suffering for years from conventional and chemical weapon attacks alike. While one should not expect this administration to have learned any lessons from previous US imperial adventures in the region, especially Iraq, the country’s security concerns continue to revolve around the amorphous threat posed by global “terrorism”, including the Islamic State group (ISIS).
In this respect, while the Assad regime is bad, it is still fighting on the right side. The possibility that US officials – no matter how divorced their thinking is from recent history – would conclude that a large-scale intervention in Syria would fit within their “war on terror” is very low.
The interests of this administration seem to lie more in the projection of military strength than in bringing about regime change. Correcting former President Barack Obama’s “red lines” retreat, in which he suggested military intervention would follow any chemical attacks but then failed to act, may also have motivated this week’s airfield strike.
The reality is that Trump’s presidency has grown increasingly unpopular, wrought by internal disarray, federal investigations, allegations of corruption and a stunning incompetence in international affairs. As we remember from the Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama presidencies, a quick, targeted strike against a hapless target in some far-off land is a great way to consolidate support, silence dissent, whip up patriotism, and rally politicians of all stripes. This, more than any radical shift in US policy, is a more obvious reason as to why the US opted to attack Assad’s regime.
Given the coordination between Russian and US officials around the attack – the former were given ample warning – it is unlikely that the conflict will continue to escalate beyond the boundaries of the current Russian-American understanding. The increased coordination between the two sides evidenced in recent months is likely to persevere.
In the end, the last thing Syria needs is more missiles and bombs raining down. More war never ends war, and Syria is no exception. Today, more than ever, what is needed are serious political negotiations to bring about an end to this tragedy.
The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.