During the US election Trump’s advice to Obama was, “do not attack Syria... if you do many very bad things will happen and from that fight the US gets nothing.” Therefore Trump was not heeding his own advice when he gave the go-ahead for 59 missiles to be fired at an Assad military airfield on 6 April.
Trump’s non-interventionist stance had been based on an assessment that the Syrian opposition is dominated by various strands of Islamism, while Assad is a known quantity. In October 2016 Trump said: “If they ever did overthrow Assad... you may very well end up with worse than Assad.”
While Obama and Clinton always maintained that a post-Assad Syria was desirable, while not spelling out how they thought this would be achieved, or whether the US would play a direct role, Trump has never accepted that Assad would need to be replaced. But Assad’s chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April were the worst in several years. There have been horrifying images of children affected — sarin can kill within 10 minutes by asphyxiation.
The Trump administration clearly felt they needed to act. US Defence Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis is a vile right wing militarist, but he also understands the “rules of war”. It is likely he advised Trump that if he failed to act then US credibility as the de facto world police would be undermined.
Since 2013 Assad has restricted the use of chemical weapons to chlorine gas, which are not explicitly prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Obama justified non-intervention on the basis that Assad was sticking to this “norm” in warfare. More than 100 people, mostly civilians were killed at Khan Sheikhoun. Assad and Russia claim the strikes were on munition factories producing Sarin Gas for rebels. Chemical weapons experts say it is “implausible” that rebel groups can develop supply chains and storage facilities capable of containing sarin.
Maybe it is true, as has been suggested, that Trump reacted emotionally to this attack. Trump reacted similarly in 2011 when he released a video calling on Obama to intervene in Libya to “save these lives.” Trump’s reaction may not signal a turn to long-term engagement in the conflict, or that he wants to break off collaboration with Russia, or end rapprochement with the Gulf states that back the rebels.
Trump has simply stated that US has a duty to stop the use of chemical weapons and ensure there are real consequences for doing so. Meanwhile Trump continues the Obama-era policy of engagement with a section of rebels who are targeting Daesh. This is done through close US air support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of militias and effectively led by the Kurdish YPG. The US has only around 1,000 troops on the ground inside Syria. They are still working towards a coordinated assault on the Daesh capital of Raqqa. However the US action could be used by Assad to justify attempts to frustrate operations against Daesh.
On the other hand there is some differentiation within the US administration. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will still visit Moscow, Nikki Haley the Trump-appointed UN ambassador remains a stringent critic of Russia. Prior to her appointment, she said “The world is waiting for Russia to reconsider its misplaced alliance with Bashar al-Assad. The United States will no longer wait.”
Trump has not yet shown an interest in escalating US involvement in Syria, but a US military build-up on the Korean peninsula suggest that general military combativeness may escalate.
The state of Daesh
Daesh remains weakened but is not defeated in Iraq and Syria. But in April it coordinated two bombings of Egyptian Copts as well as declaring that attacks on the St Petersburg Metro and in Stockholm were carried out by “soldiers answering the call.” The attack on the St Petersburg metro was carried out by a Russian citizen from Kyrgyzstan who is believed to have traveled to Syria.
There is growing speculation that many central Asians are radicalised in Russian mosques by Chechens. Daesh has recruited many Chechen and other central Asian militants to fight in Syria.
The attack in Stockholm, a lorry driving into a department store, was also apparently committed by an Uzbek asylum seeker with “some links to extremist groups”. Sectarian attacks by Daesh in Egypt have been on the increase with the Coptic Christian minority (10% of the population) now regular targets.
Donald Trump’s hypocrisy
Nicole Coulson of the US International Socialist Organisation comments on Trump’s policy shift
No, Donald Trump did not suddenly grow a conscience and a soul and begin to care about the slaughter of Syrian civilians. The naked cynicism of Trump’s rhetoric as he announced US airstrikes on the Shayrat Syrian Arab Air Force base was apparent to anyone who’s been paying attention.
Invoking the horrifying loss of life resulting from the Syrian government’s use of sarin gas against civilians, Trump declared that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children... Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.”
But Syria’s “helpless men, women and children” have been dying for years and desperately pleading for safe passage to western nations, including the US. [Instead] Trump has seized every opportunity to whip up racism and Islamophobia against refugees — scapegoating an already embattled population as a terrorist menace.
Trump has repeatedly called for “strong borders” and “extreme vetting” of those seeking refuge in the US. While he’s expressing sorrow for Syrian babies today, in February of last year, he declared at a campaign rally that he would have no problem looking Syrian children “in their faces and say[ing] ‘you can’t come,’” because “we don’t know where their parents come from... They may be [members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria]...It could be a Trojan horse.”
Around the same time, Donald Trump Jr even compared Syrian refugees to poisoned candy: “If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.” ...
Trump and others in his administration repeatedly —and without any evidence — claimed that more than 300 people who entered the US as refugees were the subject of counterterrorism investigations. But as the Washington Post pointed out, to put that in perspective, that number represents just one-fifteenth of 1 per cent of refugees admitted from the six countries targeted by
Trump’s revised travel ban since 9/11 — and it’s not clear what, if any, charges have ever been brought in any of these investigations. Further, according to the FBI, in 2016 there were at least 1,000 open investigations into “homegrown violent extremists”.
All of this underscores Trump’s hypocrisy.