US President Donald Trump decided last week to strike a Syrian air base in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack against civilians, which many believe was carried out by the Syrian regime. What this means for the future of the US role in the US is unclear.
Some countries, including Turkey and the Gulf states, have praised Trump for striking at the regime of Bashar al Assad, after years of former President Barack Obama's avoidance of conflict with Damascus – that could further irritate Russia, a Syrian ally, and drag the US into another war in the Middle East. The air strike drew praise from both Democrats and Republicans, but especially members of the GOP who have wanted the US to remove Assad.
But the way that Trump decided to fire missiles at Assad's air base in Syria represents an unprecedented exercise of executive privilege. He did not consult Congress, but rather acted under Article II of the US Constitution that allows a president as commander in chief of the armed forces to take action to defend the US.
Whether this will lead to full on “regime change” in Damascus remains uncertain, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley expressing conflicting positions on the subject.
Trump gaining an appetite for bombing other countries presents a dangerous scenario where he feels he can do so without first consulting lawmakers, who represent the public. More than that, Trump has been able to win praise even from his detractors.
Fareed Zakaria, a CNN commentator, echoed others on Friday by expressing approval for the air strike the day before.
“I think Donald Trump became president of the United States last night. I think this was actually a big moment. For the first time really as president, he talked about international norms, international rules, about America’s role in enforcing justice in the world,” Zakaria said on CNN’s New Day, according to The Hill.
Intervention in Syria would be a Herculean effort of diplomacy, and Trump has gone out of his way to dismantle the parts of government that would be responsible for it. The Defense Department in Arlington, Virginia, can start a war but the State Department, just across the Potomac river in DC, is responsible for finding ways to end it.
And then there’s the matter of money. Where will the billions of dollars in international aide come from to turn the rubble of Aleppo into a city where people can live again? The US and governments in Western Europe have embarked on programmes of domestic austerity. The US has slashed funding for long running food aid programmes. This is not a time when voters or leaders in NATO countries appear particularly generous.
The issue of Syrian refugees still remains the elephant in the room for American foreign policy in the Middle East. Trump’s White House is still seeking the legal means to ban them from the US indefinitely. With its size, economy and centuries-long history of accepting refugees from war-torn countries, the US is arguably in the best position to take in the most Syrians. An expanded war without the diplomatic means to end it would likely create more.
Ken Gude, a senior fellow with the National Security Team at the Center for American Progress, a left leaning think tank, told TRT World he’s pessimistic about the outcome results of efforts to overthrow Assad.
“If this is the beginning of a sustained military action against the Assad regime, history does not indicate that the international community has a track record of success,” Gude said. “I think the bottom line here is that none of the intractable problems are different this morning than they were yesterday morning. What is necessary to resolve this is political will from all parties to make necessary compromises to bring about a peaceful resolution.”
Trump being unchained from the legislative branch of government could mean civilian deaths in its own right. Gude said Trump has supported military action in the past, despite his campaign promises, and his advisors in the White House lack foreign policy experience. So far, Trump’s term has been noteworthy for an uptick in US attacks in the Middle East, but not major triumphs of diplomacy or peacemaking.
“We have before this strike already seen a substantial increase in US strikes in the Middle East. I think now nearly all indicators are looking to a much more expansive use of force by this administration,” he said.
Just in March, more than 1,000 civilians have reportedly died in coalition strikes against Daesh and Al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq, according to the monitoring group Airwars. In Iraq, one US air strike in Mosul killed as many as 200 civilians.
Whether or not the strike on the Syrian air base is a one-off event or the beginning of a concerted effort to topple Assad will become clear in the coming days. The action appears to be part of a shift in the internal politics of the White House, where top adviser Steve Bannon is losing out to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The two men had clashed over the direction Trump should take, with Bannon urging Trump to defy the Republican establishment and Kushner proposing a more conciliatory tone. A report in Axios details the dispute. Kushner also has close ties to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a family friend. Netanyahu also praised the attack on Assad.
The strike is a departure from the “America First” policies Trump touted during his campaign, when he decried the “false song of globalism” that would have American military power try to punish oppressive dictators like Assad. Trump’s words won over many Americans who saw the US war to overthrow Saddam Hussein as a bloody, pointless disaster.
Here’s what might be happening. Trump’s promises of an America First foreign policy were not in keeping with his personality, which craves approval from both friends and enemies. With his strike against Syria, the politicians he mercilessly mocked during the campaign lauded his resolute stance against Assad. Instead of America First, we may be seeing the emergence of a Trump First foreign policy.
Where that leads is anybody’s guess. Trump, who just two years ago was a reality television star, certainly knows how to win an audience. Whether he knows how to win a war against a regime allied to a rival nuclear superpower – the world will have to watch and wait for the answer.