Is the strike on Syria a turning point for Donald Trump?

Airfield bombing draws widespread support from Republicans, Democrats and liberal media

As the world is left baffled by the biggest foreign policy shift in modern American history, US president Donald Trump may be congratulating himself on the public relations coup of his presidency.

His decision to order a military strike on a Syrian airfield early on Friday morning achieved what many thought would never happen - widespread support from Democrats and the mainstream liberal media.

While the praise has been qualified - there is a unanimous view in Washington that Mr Trump needs to show he has a strategy to back up his actions - most are allowing the US president his moment in the sun.

Though prompted by this week's chemical attacks in Syria, the timing of the strikes was fortuitous for Mr Trump. The US president needed a win. Polls have shown his popularity is languishing between 30 and 40 per cent, while the failure of the Republican health care bill and constant questions about his election campaign's links with Russia have dented his credibility and led to blanket negative coverage in much of the press.


The Syria strikes caught the media unaware - most did not believe that an airstrike was imminent.

Given Mr Trump’s previous inconsistencies and untruths, when the president struck a reflective note at a press conference on Wednesday - explaining how his views on Syrian leader Syrian president Bashar al-Assad had changed after seeing the images of people dying of chemical attacks in Syria - many dismissed his words as mere bluster.

In fact, the US president had held his first high-level meeting with representatives from the Pentagon, the State Department and intelligence agencies on Tuesday evening to consider the options on retaliation.

By the time he spoke in the White House Rose Garden along with King Abdullah of Jordan on Wednesday the plan to attack Assad was already well underway. The US president, it emerged, had been deadly serious.

Since then, the rolling 24-hour news coverage that pumps the American political world and shapes public perceptions has been broadly positive.

While Mr Trump’s main media ally, Fox News, was unsurprisingly lavish in its praise for the president’s bold intervention, chief Trump-adversary CNN has also allowed itself to give the US president credit for his decision to order the attack.

Crucially for Trump, the Republican Party in Congress, most of whom opposed Trump's candidacy as president of the United States, are thrilled at the development.

As well as highlighting the contrast between Mr Trump’s decisiveness and former president Barack Obama’s hesitation as commander-in-chief, a military intervention also proves the president’s true Republican credentials.

The support of Republicans in Congress is vital for Mr Trump as he makes a second attempt at bringing forward a second healthcare bill. He may also need the party’s support if things get tricky in the two congressional investigations into Russia interference in the US election.

On the Democrat side, senior figures such as Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi commended Mr Trump's actions.

"Making sure Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will pay a price is the right thing to do," Mr Schumer said, while Ms Pelosi described the military strike as a "proportional response to the regime's use of chemical weapons".

While Democrats have stressed any further incursions into Syria will need Congressional approval, their endorsement is an expression of bipartisan support, however temporary, that Mr Obama could never command.

The big unknown is how Mr Trump’s support base feels. As the president appears to move closer to the mainstream Washington elite by taking on Assad, his apparent move away from his ‘America First’ policy was under fire by many of his alt-right, ultra-nationalist supporters online.

It is unclear whether this criticism will be replicated among the white, working-class support base of rural America who elected him on a strong message of economic nationalism - though the display of stars and stripes military might embodied by the launch of 59 tomahawk missiles may play well among this sector of voters.

Intriguingly, Mr Trump’s foreign policy shift on Syria appears to have been closely intertwined with a shift in the power dynamics within the Trump camp.

While no personnel changes have yet been made, rumours have been swirling that chief strategist Steve Bannon is increasingly losing favour, while chief of staff Reince Priebus could be on the way out.

This coincides with the increasingly senior role occupied by the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner, particularly in the realm of foreign policy, with the 36-year-old real estate magnate and investor travelling to Iraq last week.

The influence of General HR McMaster, the Iraq war veteran who replaced Mike Flynn as national security adviser last month, is also seen as key to Mr Trump's decision to order the military strike on Syria.

The long-term impact of the decision to strike Assad remains to be seen, however, and rests primarily on the response of the US’s adversaries to Friday morning’s strikes.

If the action is contained to the single attack on Shayrat air field, as the US appears to favour, the threat of escalation recedes, and Mr Trump can bask in glory.

But retaliation by Russia or Iran, or some form of aggravation by North Korea, would present an entirely different scenario that could see President Trump drag America into another overseas war his supporters never wanted.

With Secretary of State Rex Tillerson due to visit Moscow on Tuesday, the coming days could prove vital in determining how the Syrian air strikes will ultimately reflect on Mr Trump's presidency.