April 11, 2017
It is difficult to predict what the president of the world’s greatest nation will do when he has no previous political or governing experience and when he is known for his changing points of view and his reliance on the logic of business elites and deal-making for profits detached from principles.
Perhaps the recent U.S. air strikes on Syria demonstrate the lack of clarity in the Administration’s strategy toward Russia’s military presence in Syria and its support for the Syrian government.
It is revealing that President Trump himself has not accused Russia with regard to the claims that Syrian jets dropped chemical weapons on civilians, whereas officials in his administration have said it unequivocally. The contradictory statements coming from several members in his administration will allow Trump to choose in the future what suits him best politically without him having to make a commitment to any one position now.
Whereas U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reaffirmed that the priority in Syria is to confront Daash (ISIL), the American Ambassador to the UN reflected the opposite position. Senate Republican positions, voiced by McCain, Graham, and Rubio, demand that the president issue ultimatums to Moscow and escalate military intervention in Syria with the aim of bringing down the Assad government. On the other hand, Conservative public opinion, which won Trump the White House, is for “America First” and against foreign adventurism. And the voices in Congress are calling for congressional participation before further steps are taken toward war.
Tillerson’s visit to Moscow comes at a crucial moment because it will result in one of two possible outcomes. Either the Trump administration is using tactical pressure both to gain political benefits domestically as well as to strengthen its negotiating position with Moscow about the future of Syria, or the second possibility is that Trump’s strategy has changed and he is using the military action in Syria to initiate a confrontation with Iran and to force Moscow to choose between the benefits of aligning with the West or becoming even more involved military in the Middle East.
In my opinion, the first possibility is more likely. The consequences of the second possibility are so dangerous that even the neoconservatives under President George W. Bush did not attempt it. Military confrontation with Iran would involve the United States in a larger and worse engagement that Iraq and Afghanistan, and it could very likely explode into a world war. Not to mention the domestic political repercussions and the damage to the unstable global economy.
That is why I find the first possibility to be more plausible. Perhaps someone advised Mr. Trump to change his language and diplomacy, without actually changing the substance of the policies he peddled throughout his presidential campaign. A few days before the strikes on Syria, Tillerson spoke about the priority of confronting Daash and finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis by allowing the Syrian people to decide the future of their president according to National Security Council Resolution 2254.
Based on the plausibility of the first possibility, the strikes on Syrian gave Trump several political benefits:
1. Distracting attention away from the media’s allegations about Russia’s involvement in the U.S. elections
2. Facilitating the confirmation of conservative judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court without the required 60 votes in the Senate
3. Satisfying certain Republican leaders who were pressuring Trump to take an aggressive position against Moscow, Iran, and in Syria, in addition to the pressure of the Israeli lobby.
4. Justifying a 10 percent increase in the Pentagon’s budget, which comes at the expense of social programs like education and health care.
5. Improving his ratings in the polls, which were lower than any president at this point in their administration. Trump cares desperately about public perceptions of him. After the strikes Syria, even some Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, praised his actions.
6. Showing Trump as a strong leader, especially after several public failures like the judicial repudiation of his travel ban.
7. Finally, the action in Syria received support from U.S. allies in the Middle East, which the Trump administration needed before the regional conference he is organizing for this summer.
The Trump administration knows very well that the American people and the media stand behind their leadership when there are military and security developments. This is what happened after 9/11 and George W Bush’s decision to go to war against Iraq even though it was based on reasons that proved to be false.
*(This article was originally written in Arabic on April 11, 2017. It was translated into English by Joanne Tucker and edited by the author).
** Sobhi Ghandour is the Executive Director of Al-Hewar Centre, Metro-Washington, DC.