Paul Heinbecker is a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations.
The U.S. missile strike on the Syrian airfield at Shayrat raises a fundamental question: is this attack truly a one-off warning shot that the United States will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons, or does it actually portend a more muscular, interventionist U.S. foreign policy? Either way, it will have profound consequences for the calculus of policy makers around the world.
It is not clear what the Trump administration’s policy on Syria is and what strategic purpose Thursday’s attack served. What is clear is that the cerebral calculations of “no-drama” Obama have given way to the visceral instincts of the pragmatic Donald Trump.
Several factors appear to have motivated Mr. Trump. First, he cast his decision in traditional policy terms, saying that it is “in the vital national security interest of the United Stated to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” (Prevention and deterrence really are in everyone’s interests; hence the widespread support for the action from around the world.)
There is also the human factor. Mr. Trump was understandably repulsed by the atrocities perpetrated by the Syrians.
And there are political factors. Mr. Trump was unwilling to have the same label of weakness hung on him as he himself had hung on Mr. Obama over Syria’s previous use of chemical weapons. There is also the miasma enveloping the Trump administration. Could the attack on Syria have been a distraction from the investigation of suspected Kremlin influence on the election campaign? The fact that question even arises is a sign of how distrustful many in Washington – and abroad – have become.
The reverberations are being felt worldwide. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has to know that if he uses chemical weapons again, the next volley of missiles could have his name on it. He probably over-interpreted U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comment a few days ago, when Mr. Tillerson said it was up to the Syrian people to determine Mr. al-Assad’s future. Some wonder whether he was set up. In any case, just as Russia’s intervention in 2015 lifted his prospects, the U.S. attack has lowered them. Rebel groups are likely to be encouraged that the United States is finally engaging directly against Mr. al-Assad, but they might again be disappointed. Managing expectations will be a challenge for Washington. Meanwhile, the multi-sided civil war grinds on.
In Moscow, there is less swagger to the rhetoric. The Russians’ 2015 bet on Syrian intervention has been called, or at least called into question. They were powerless to stop the Americans, never a good thing for a regime that values power above all. The Russians have taken the issue to the UN Security Council for whatever public-relations benefit that avails them. As was the case a generation ago in Kosovo, the Russians have learned that their veto is valueless if others are not prepared to respect it. The Russians have themselves to blame for systematically shielding earlier Syrian atrocities. In any case, the Putin-Trump bromance is over.
The reverberations are being felt strongly in the region. Iran has condemned the strike. Turkey, a bitter enemy of Mr. al-Assad and proponent of no-fly zones and safe havens inside Syria, welcomed the attack, as did Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The aftershocks reach Asia, as well. Although the Chinese reaction to the missile strike has been measured, President Xi Jinping could not have been thrilled to have this drama play out as he faced the cameras at Mr. Trump’s table. How all this might affect Sino-U.S. relations, especially on the vexed question of North Korea, remains to be seen. At a minimum, Kim Jong-un has something new to think about.
The UN itself will be negatively affected. Russia’s repeated use of its veto to shield Mr. al-Assad from war crimes has undoubtedly damaged the UN’s utility and its brand. Mr. Trump’s by-passing of the Security Council, regrettable though understandable, will diminish the UN’s standing even more. At the same time, the UN Charter remains the rules of the road for international diplomacy, and most countries see it in their interest to respect it, most of the time. The 24/7 diplomacy that the UN hosts, along with its many arms control agreements and conflict prevention efforts, has helped to prevent a war among the major powers for 75 years. The social functions of the UN, from harbouring refugees to responding to climate change, are likewise indispensable. The UN will continue to limp along.
Mr. Trump’s action was a bold but measured and proportionate stroke in a terribly complex conflict. We shall see whether it signals the beginning of the end of the Syrian civil war or a step down a slippery slope into ever-deeper chaos in the region and a confrontation with Russia.Report Typo/Error
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