US missile strike against Syria marks stunning shift in policy
Analysis: Last week Trump appeared to accept ‘political reality’ of Bashar al-Assad in power
In less than 48 hours, President Donald Trump enacted one of the most dramatic shifts in US policy in decades, as the United States launched a missile strike against Syria, audaciously threatening to escalate a conflict that has ravaged the Middle East for six years.
The first signs that Trump was mulling action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad emerged on Wednesday, when the US representative to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, launched a blistering attack on the Assad regime and Russia’s involvement in Syria at an emergency session of the UN Security Council in New York.
An hour later, Trump appeared beside King Abdullah of Jordan at a scheduled press conference at the White House, and warned that he was prepared to take action in Syria as he said that “many, many lines” had been crossed by this week’s chemical attack.
Describing the attack as an “affront against humanity”, he said “these heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated”, adding that his view on the Syrian leader had changed after seeing pictures of civilians being choked by the deadly gas on Tuesday.
By Thursday the position of the White House had hardened, with secretary of state Rex Tillerson telling reporters in a rare press conference that Russia should “carefully consider” its continued support for the Assad regime.
Following high-level meetings on Wednesday night, Trump was briefed by his national security advisers as he arrived in Florida on Thursday to meet Chinese premier Xi Jinping.
Those who have publicly criticised Trump’s actions are the kind of associates the Trump administration may be keen to shake off
Shortly after 9pm on Thursday, the Chinese delegation left the Florida estate, while defence secretary James Mattis informed the president that the strike had been launched. The missile strike on the Shayrat airfield in western Syria was confirmed shortly after.
Although the signs coming from the US administration in Washington and Florida in the hours before the strike were typical of an imminent US military intervention, the swiftness of the action was astonishing.
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Change of heart
Trump had previously opposed intervention in Syria, and as late as last week his officials said the US was accepting the “political reality” of Assad in power – a break with the past five years of US policy, which has demanded that the Syrian leader must go.
Almost immediately questions are turning to the next steps.
As it stands, the relatively limited strikes ordered on Thursday are not enough to target Syria’s chemical supplies or alter the direction of the war in Syria, and appear to be a symbolic warning to Assad. Analysts say that the US would have the capability to ramp up air strikes significantly before reaching the stage of dispatching ground troops.
Russia’s stance will be crucial to what happens in the days ahead. The Pentagon confirmed that the Russian military had a presence at the Shayrat airfield and that Russian ground troops had been warned of the attack, which itself raises the question about whether Russia knew that the Assad regime was using chemical weapons. President Vladimir Putin’s loyalty to Assad will now be tested as the US dramatically ups the stakes.
Similarly Iran, which has lent support to Assad, may also wade in. In an inflammatory tweet, Iran’s foreign minister Jared Sharif wrote that the US used chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s “then resorts to bogus cw [chemical weapons] allegations; first in 2003, now in Syria”.
In Washington some congressmen are outraged at the president’s decision to launch the strikes without consulting Congress. With the House of Representatives and Senate due to begin a two-week Easter recess, some have called on House speaker Paul Ryan to hold an emergency session.
Some hawkish Republicans who praised Trump’s decision to launch the strikes, such as senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, called for even further military intervention in Syria, though there are some members of the far-right community who are furious that Trump has changed policy.
How North Korea responds to the unfolding situation will also be significant, given that the country has nuclear weapons that some believe could be developed to hit the United States in the coming years. China, which has previously sided with Russia in blocking sanctions against North Korea at the UN Security Council, is uneasy about the kind of unilateral action taken by the US against Assad.
Overall the Syrian strikes may enhance Trump’s standing domestically, with most Republicans praising his decisiveness in contrast to the wavering of his predecessor. Even Hillary Clinton called for Assad’s airbases to be taken out in an interview just hours before the strikes.
The real geopolitical implications of Trump’s biggest foreign policy decision to date remain to be seen
Trump has managed to gather the support of former critics as diverse as Clinton and former presidential candidate Marco Rubio, as well as many ordinary Syrians who have praised the US president for intervening.
At the same time, those who have publicly criticised Trump’s actions are the kind of associates the Trump administration may be keen to shake off, such as French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and extremist members of the alt-right movement such as Richard Spencer.
The real geopolitical implications of Trump’s biggest foreign policy decision to date remain to be seen, however.
While Tillerson moved to play down the significance of the strike, linking it specifically to the chemical attack, it is naive to hope that the decision to strike will not have consequences.
As the recent history of US intervention in the Middle East shows, launching strikes is the easy part – working out how to proceed will prove much more difficult.