Just over a week ago, Trump administration officials had issued statements that essentially caved in to Russian objectives in Syria. Preservation of the Assad regime was now official US policy. Reuters reported on March 30:
The view of the Trump administration is also at odds with European powers, who insist Assad must step down. The shift drew a strong rebuke from at least two Republican senators.
“You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told a small group of reporters.
Meanwhile, Rex Tillerson had told reporters that the status of Bashar al-Assad would be “decided by the Syrian people”, which was like saying that the fate of Augusto Pinochet would be decided by the Chilean people. Sean Spicer rounded out the Assad can stay brigade: “With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.”
All that changed after Tuesday, April 4th when Syrian Su-22 fighter-bombers launched a Sarin gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, the only area in Syria that was not under government control. Trump’s first response was to blame Obama’s failure to adhere to his “red line” warnings in 2013, when East Ghouta suffered an identical attack. Since Trump warned Obama against taking military action at the time, there’s an element of hypocrisy that goes with the Trump territory. Now he sounded like Nicholas Kristof: “It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines.”
Ever hear the term Pecksniffian? It comes from a Charles Dicken character named Seth Pecksniff, who adopted a holier-than-thou posture. Trump’s words were pure Pecksniff. This is a guy who authorized the bombing of a mosque in Aleppo that left more than 57 people dead, the same number as in Khan Sheihoun. Trump’s excuse was the same as Assad’s—the mosque was a meeting place for al-Qaeda just like Khan Sheihoun. It’s also the same excuse Netanyahu gives when he bombs Gaza, except it is Hamas that is the “bad guys”.
What would make Trump turn on a dime? Since he clearly cares about nobody in the world except himself, his family, and the rich bastards whose interests he upholds as chief executive, there must be something else going on.
I think the “red lines” are worth considering. In September 2013, Obama found a convenient excuse for backing down on his threats after Putin offered an escape clause. In exchange for Assad surrendering his chemical weapons, the USA would not attack Syria. This was a very smart move for Assad since it effectively gave him and his Russian allies carte blanche to throw everything else he had against the rebels from barrel bombs to white phosphorus and cluster bombs.
It is clear to me that Assad saw the statements by the Trump administration as a green light to use Sarin gas once again. For Assad’s supporters on the left, this made no sense since he was winning the war anyhow. That might be true but what sort of restraint would he feel necessary with Donald Trump in the White House?
It was clear that US imperialism could not abide with such an impudent refusal to abide by the terms of the September 2013 agreement. Given the truculent stance of the Trump administration to North Korea and China, it needs to be regarded as a power not to be trifled with. So, Assad miscalculated and got a bloody nose for his efforts.
Despite the worries that the “anti-imperialist” left has over this becoming a “regime change” effort, there are signs that things will return to normal once the Syrian dictator understands that using Sarin gas is a no-no. The USA took great pains to make sure that things were kept under strict control as Salon reported today:
It turns out that President Donald Trump gave a heads up to the Russian government before launching his missile strike against Syria on Thursday night.
“Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line,” said Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis in an official statement. “U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.”
In response to the attack, Russia has announced that it will help Syria strengthen its air defenses. It also may have prepared Syrians for the attack by tipping them off, as eyewitnesses observed personnel and equipment being moved from the Shayrat airbase in advance of the attack.
I don’t think that George W. Bush had this kind of arrangement with Saddam Hussein.