Trump unlikely to get mired in Syrian conflict

Trump is likely to concentrate US military activity on ISIS, which he has done since taking office.

No appetite for war. Demonstrators participate in a protest against the American missile strike in Syria in Union Square in New York, on April 7. (AFP)

2017/04/23 Issue: 103 Page: 9

The Arab Weekly
Gregory Aftandilian

US President Donald Trump’s order to strike a Syrian government airbase in response to the regime’s alleged chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians has given him a slight bounce in opinion polls and earned him unusual praise from the Washington foreign policy establishment. However, this strike does not change his overall strategy of concentrating on the Islamic State (ISIS) and avoiding regime change in Syria.

After more than two-and-a-half months of missteps and sagging poll numbers, Trump seems to have found his groove by decid­ing to bomb the Syrian airbase from where it is believed Presi­dent Bashar Assad’s forces launched the April 4 chemical attack that killed and wounded many Syrian civilians.

Trump’s decision to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the airbase on April 7 was overkill, to say the least, but he wanted to show in a very graphic way that he was the “anti-Obama.” Trump accused the former president of weak leadership for failing to follow through on his own red line when the Assad regime earlier reportedly used chemical weapons.

Trump also appeared to be genuinely moved by the sight of dead and injured Syrian children. This human side to Trump (often lost in the rough and tumble — and nastiness — of the presiden­tial campaign) showed that he was a man of some compassion and signalled to Assad that he would not tolerate inhumane actions against civilians.

Trump genuinely appears to be a caring father and grandfather and this sentiment probably influenced his decision to respond to the chemical attack when he saw images of grieving Syrian parents weeping over their children.

Perhaps more importantly, Trump wanted to show that “making America great again” — his oft-repeated campaign slogan — means that he will act decisively and unpredictably to underscore that “there is a new sheriff in town,” to borrow a phrase from the Wild West.

Many of Trump’s critics in Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, approved of his strike on the Syrian airbase. Even his major Republican nemesis, US Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Trump’s decision to strike the airbase “showed strength” and compared it to the policies of former President Ronald Reagan.

The American public signalled its support, too. A poll by CBS News indicated that 57% of American respondents said they approved of the strike.

However, the United States remains wary of getting bogged down in Syria. The same CBS poll showed that almost 70% of poll participants said Trump needs to get authorisation from Congress before he takes any further action against the Assad regime and only 18% of respondents said they want Washington to send ground troops to Syria.

Reports from across the United States said even Trump support­ers who said they like that he acted in a tough and decisive manner in response to the Syrian chemical attack do not want him to send large numbers of US troops to Syria for regime change. They do not want to see a repeat of the 2003 Iraq war that most Americans have come to say was a mistake.

During the presidential cam­paign, Trump often railed against the Iraq invasion and called it a “dumb” war that destabilised the Middle East. Trump has enough political sense to know that if he sent large numbers of US troops into Syria, he would lose the support of the very people who put him into the White House.

Trump, despite his negative views of Assad, is likely to concentrate US military activity on ISIS, which he has done since taking office. Although he has sent at least 500 more US special forces to Syria to support anti- ISIS forces there, he is likely to stay clear of any major involve­ment that would involve regular US troops. This strategy, which started under President Barack Obama, might lead to the defeat of ISIS and the capture of its self-declared capital of Raqqa in Syria by the end of 2017.

Dealing with Assad is likely to come much later and probably through negotiations rather than bombs or troops.

Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.

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