Last week’s US missile strike on an airbase in Syria, perhaps the first of a series, has surprised many, perhaps most, with its return to old-fashioned visible US muscle power, against an entity, Syria, seen as a client/proxy/ally of Russia, a country Donald Trump was supposed to be in the pay of.
The strike itself is hardly inconsistent with Trump’s stated foreign policy. In the election campaign, he argued that the US should “start winning again”, but refrain from nation-building. He focused on Islamic State (or ISIS/ISIL) rather than Assad, but he also made it clear he was into “anti-barbarity” politics. IS was bad because it was cutting off heads, Assad is bad because he’s using chemical weapons. Method and appearance of murder are all, outcome very little.
There is very little else Trump could have done, as far as domestic politics goes, other than hit back after a chemical attack. The defining moment by which Obama was constructed as a weak president was his “red line” over chemical weapons, which Syria then used. Obama says he’s proud of resisting pressure, stepping back from a direct response from the US foreign-policy “playbook”. That strike was a test by Syria of what a US response would be. So, too, is this one. They have been so little fazed by the strike that they are not only continuing operations, they are doing so from the very airbase that was bombed.
That leaves Trump in a tricky situation. His administration has now become de facto proponents of the idea that “something must be done” about Syria. Assad may avoid using chemical weapons, but the large-scale bombings will continue, and so too will the photographs of atrocities. What then can be the response? More airstrikes? Anything less than increasing the pressure will look weak and ineffectual. But anything stronger and there will be no possibility of doing a deal with the Russians, as clearly occurred with this airbase strike. Simply by still doing what it is doing, Syria will make Trump look weak. The only possible course of face-saving action will be an airstrike against the Syrian government itself, in Damascus. That would bring the US into very direct contact with Russia.
Trump has thus stepped onto the escalator, the exact one that Obama avoided. Already people around his administration are talking about regime change in Damascus. In DC, the neocons are coming out of the woodwork, happy that it’s business as usual again. They’re emboldened by the removal of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council, Bannon being the main proponent of a withdrawal from over-extension (to prepare for the greater wars to come), and the reconsolidation of US domestic infrastructure.
Those of the alt-right are now clearing their throats and pointing out that they are as opposed to regime change and nation-building as they are to Obama’s multi-lateralism, a conflict that will widen (witness in the Oz, Greg Sheridan’s wargasm as soon as the strike occurred, followed by Jennifer Oriel’s piece this morning, which, one would have to say, is objectively pro-Assad). Meanwhile, the attack on Assad has drawn centrist liberal support behind Trump (the WSWS has a useful rundown), and further widened the split between centrist liberalism and the left in the US.
That illustrates one clear domestic purpose of the attacks: dispelling the growing disquiet around Trump’s links with Russia, as evidence of that becomes less and less deniable, and as former associates start offering testimony in exchange for immunity. For how can Trump be in the pay of the Russians, if he’s bombing their allies? Well, because the whole thing is staged and arranged of course, and we all know that. But what many of his supporters need is something to quell their doubts, and a simple answer for the critics. The strike against Syria gives them that. And the liberals have to suspend hostilities to endorse hostilities.
Does this strike create a danger of war? I don’t think so, for a minute. People appear to forget how cheek-by-jowl US and Soviet troops and proxies were in the Cold War — during the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars for example. Or that the US “accidentally” bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war. And so on. Small skirmishes like this aren’t going to tip us into anything big.
But they’ll tip the US into something more. The Trump administration will either succeed immediately and bring Assad to heel — very unlikely — or look ineffectual as the war continues, or escalate, out of domestic pressure and neocon enthusiasm. At that point, a wider conflict may become far more likely. Whatever happens, Trump is burnishing the credentials of a president. But it may be that the president in question is Obama — who may well look, after a year or so of Trump doctrine, like Eisenhower, the guy who kept it all together, before the missiles rained down. All good fun, till someone gets hurt. Or half a million killed.