This past week, US forces launched Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase, purportedly in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people. The attack marked a significant reversal of not only US policy toward Syria in general, but an ever more stunning reversal of Donald Trump’s policy toward Syria. Remember, for years before he even ran for president, he cautioned against striking Assad, saying that the move could have a lot of negative repercussions, and that the US would gain nothing from doing so.
Now, if the official accounts are to be believed, Trump abruptly reversed policy, ignoring his own prior warnings and opinions, deciding to strike against Assad. He did so despite the risks of escalation from Russia or Iran, Assad’s primary backers and his proxies in the civil war which has been raging in Syria for years. He allegedly did so after seeing images of children gassed by Assad’s attack on television.
Leaving aside the disturbing suggestion that the president’s own policy could be entirely and abruptly upended by watching a TV show, without adequate consideration or planning for potential consequences, the move was inconsistent with Trump’s own actions only weeks before. Syrians are among those deemed a national security threat by Trump’s attempted travel ban (both versions), meaning that he was unwilling to provide refugees humanitarian aid in the form of relocation to the US. Now, based on a TV show, he’s offered humanitarian aid in the form of Tomahawk missiles instead (while still attempting in court to enforce the ban on Syrian refugees).
The fact that Trump would so fecklessly risk escalation with Russia, and particularly Putin, of whom he has spoken so admirably before, is puzzling, to say the least. This is the same president who lobbied the Republican National Committee to soften its platform position on Russia regarding its invasion of Ukraine, which are the subject of significant US sanctions. In fact, as we speak, Trump and his campaign are being investigated for potentially colluding with the Russians in their attempts to intervene in the election in Trump’s favor.
It has been alleged, in the dossier authored by British spy Christopher Steele, that Putin was attempting to intervene in Trump’s favor with the ultimate goal of getting US sanctions lifted. If that is indeed the case, a move by Trump in the relatively early days of his presidency to try to lift those sanctions would do much to confirm the narrative that Russia’s interference was a quid pro quo in exchange for Trump’s assistance with getting the sanctions lifted. It is noteworthy that getting the sanctions lifted would also greatly benefit ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson’s former company, because a large oil deal that ExxonMobil has in the region has been stalled by the sanctions. Lifting the sanctions, in other words, benefits both Putin and ExxonMobil.
It is possible that Syria may be the path for Trump to lift the sanctions. What we already know is that the US strike in Syria wasn’t really intended to hurt Assad. This is an important fact. Indeed, the Russians were given advance warning of the strike, so that they had the opportunity to move personnel and assets from the strike zone. The Russians, in turn, also gave Syrian forces advance warning. Damage was not crippling, and in fact the airbase was back in service the next day, launching raids against Assad’s internal opposition. It has also been disclosed that a wide variety of options was presented to president Trump, including “saturation strikes” which would have done some real damage to Assad’s capability to wage war against his opposition.
That Trump took the least of all possible options and made sure to conduct the raid in a way that would do no real harm to either Syrian or Russian assets is potentially very telling. So is the fact that Russia has not made any real moves toward escalation, instead only denouncing the strike and putting on a meaningless show of flexing its muscles by sending a missile-armed frigate to the region. Rhetoric from the Trump administration has shifted, and now Tillerson is making overt calls for Russia to drop its support of Assad, suggesting that Assad’s continued use of internationally-banned chemical weapons is a human rights abuse that Russia is complicit in – and that Russia becomes increasingly complicit the longer it goes on.
To be sure, Assad is becoming a problem to Russia by continuing to brutalize his own people, earning him a deserved reputation as a monster. So, the Syrian situation gives both Putin and Trump a pretext to get sanctions lifted. It would go something like this: After some military moves indicating the potential for escalation of hostilities between Russia and the US – leading to considerable angst here in the US and abroad – Russia offers to abandon its support of Assad in some meaningful way in exchange for the US lifting the majority or entirety of US sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of its invasion of the Ukraine. The potential for a deal to get Russia out of Syria, potentially achieve regime change there as hoped for by neocons, and avert the escalation of hostilities between Russia and the US proves irresistible to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and the sanctions get lifted. Putin gets what he wanted out of Trump all along, Trump looks like a winner here at home.
If you were Putin, and wanted to give the US president you helped elect a way to do your bidding, wouldn’t this be a great piece of theater to concoct? You sacrifice a few planes, make a show of ratcheting up tensions, and provide an escape route to avert war – and profit massively in the process. The masses would eat it up, and never realize that the whole confrontation was a pretext to get sanctions lifted.
Good thing real life isn’t like that, isn’t it?