The isolationist Trump has had a change of heart. Instead of his promise to keep out of the Middle East, he has used the outrage over a chemical attack on civilians in Khan Shaykhun in Syria to send 59 cruise missiles against a Syrian government air base. The White House was quick to announce that the action sent a strong signal not just to Assad, but to the rest of the world.
Britain, France, Germany and other quisling states immediately welcomed America’s “decisive”, but “proportionate” blow at the Syrian regime for their dastardly use of chemical weapons. However, it is only the US security agencies who claim to have any evidence to show that Assad was responsible, the same agencies that swore blue that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
In response, the Russians reacted angrily to the US missile attack, allying themselves with Iran, the other main foreign backer of Assad, to warn against further American strikes.
While Washington and other pliant western governments blamed the Syrian government, Russia insisted the civilian deaths were due to nerve gas leaking from an opposition chemical weapons dump when it was hit in an airstrike by Syrian forces.
To determine the most likely version, we need to ask the question: who benefits from this incident?
To begin with, the affected town had no military significance. Assad was winning the war in Syria, so why should he deliberately use chemical weapons, which would unnecessarily provoke retaliation from the United States? Assad would have everything to lose by doing so. The opposition jihadi forces have access to chemical weapons and have used them. The opposition were clearly jubilant at the US’s bombing of Assad. A former British ambassador to Syria warned that this will mean more staged chemical attacks will be made by the opposition, blaming Assad, in order to draw in the US to attack government targets.
Despite claims by the US that the bombing was a “one off” event, the military action has sent ripples across the world. Both Vladimir Putin and the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, issued a joint statement: “The aggressive US actions against a sovereign state, which violate international law, are unacceptable.”
The regime in Pyongyang, which provoked Washington with a missile test this month, also condemned the attack. Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, described the US strike as an “unforgivable act of aggression” that justified its need to develop its nuclear arsenal. This act will simply strengthen the Pyongyang regime and its resolve to develop their nuclear capacity. They saw what happened to Saddam and the regime change in Iraq and drew the conclusion that they needed to arm and defend themselves with their own weapons of mass destruction.
In stepping up the pressure, the Pentagon decided to deploy an aircraft carrier group near the Korean peninsula, described by a US military official as a “show of force”. This was part of what Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, said that the era of American “strategic patience” with North Korea was over. He made a point of emphasising that America was considering all options, including military strikes.
But this is all bluff. North Korea is a very unstable Stalinist state, ruled by a dictator and armed with nuclear weapons. As opposed to Syria, the US cannot use missiles against North Korea for fear of deadly retaliation. If attacked, North Korea could easily dispatch missiles with nuclear bombs to Tokyo and South Korea, also destroying US military bases in the area. The North Korean nuclear and missile programmes are widely dispersed, including underground and underwater. It would be extremely unlikely that the whole programme could be destroyed in a single wave of strikes, which would immediately raise the prospect of nuclear retaliation by the North.
The US would need to take account of this reality. North Korea is certainly not comparable to Syria, which was more or less defenceless to US aggression. Syria has fallen apart and is not capable of fighting back. North Korea is totally different. Even a so-called surgical strike by the US administration would bring disastrous consequences, not least its allies.
NBC reported that a recently completed US review of North Korea policy included options to site US nuclear weapons in South Korea and to assassinate Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader. This resembles US attempts to destabilise Cuba and murder Castro, which ended in complete failure. It would be a very dangerous course, certain to provoke Pyongyang.
America’s unilateral action in Syria will certain raise fears not least in China, not simply because Donald Trump was dining with Xi Jinping as the bombs were dropping, but because of the increasingly tough talk about North Korea emanating from the US administration. The threat – and that is what it is - that Trump will go it alone over North Korea will be taken more seriously by the Chinese. Having said that, China has no interest in changing its policy and support towards North Korea. A collapse of the Pyongyang regime, or the crippling of its economy, would send a tide of refugees into China, with all the upheaval this would mean. It could also open the road to the eventual reunification of Korea, which will mean more American troops and bases on the very border of China itself. This would be intolerable for the Chinese regime. That is why the Chinese have decided to call Trump’s bluff, by moving 150,000 troops to the border with North Korea.
Joe Detrani, a former top CIA officer who has had dealings with North Korean officials, said Kim might become concerned for his safety, but would not change his policy. “His father, Kim Jong Il, literally went into hiding after the first Gulf war when the US used overwhelming air power to destroy Iraq’s military,” said Detrani. “Kim Jong Un may do the same... It will not, however, deter him from enhancing his nuclear and missile programmes.”
The Chinese government has nevertheless warned North Korea, through the Global Times, a Chinese “Communist” party newspaper, to understand the gravity of the situation and avoid another provocation by conducting what would be its sixth nuclear test.
“Should North Korea conduct the sixth nuclear test, the possibility that it will become a decisive factor in pushing Washington to take a military adventure cannot be excluded,” the newspaper declared in an editorial. “It’s of vital importance that North Korea does not misjudge the situation in future. New nuclear tests will meet with unprecedented reactions from the international community, even to a turning point.”
Not only are the Chinese on edge, but even more so are the rulers of Seoul and Tokyo. Trump was forced to call both Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and Hwang Kyo-ahn, the acting South Korean president, about the Syria strike and the situation on the North Korean peninsula. And no wonder they are nervous. Even if the US was able to knock out North Korea’s the whole nuclear programme in one swoop, the North Koreans still have formidable conventional artillery. They could launch a devastating onslaught at Seoul, the South Korean capital, a city of 10m people 35 miles from the North Korean border. Japan would also be vulnerable to missile strikes, as would US bases in the region.
Crisis of the regime
This apparent change of foreign policy by Trump has certainly created waves internationally. Trump’s original antipathy to Middle East intervention, a key point in his campaign to become president, appears to be cast aside. Trump, as unstable as ever, seems to be backtracking. So what are the reasons for this apparent volte face on Syria?
The change - even if it is temporary - is mostly a reflection of the problems facing Trump on the domestic front, as he faces increasing pressure over his associates’ dealings with Moscow. This, in turn, is a reflection of the influence of America’s “deep state”, branches of the secret services, which is inherently hostile to Russia. By reasserting US power on the global stage, Trump hopes to divert the attention of his political opponents — but at the price of submitting to their foreign policy agenda. This could also explain the announcement just a couple of days before the Syria strikes, that Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist and the main advocate of “America First” nationalism in the White House, had lost his seat on the National Security Council. General Michael Flynn, who shared many of Mr Bannon’s radical instincts, was also sacked as head of the NSC in February.
However, these retreats have already created problems in his support base, who are hostile to more foreign adventures. His supporters are saying he must be held to account, “feet to the fire”, to reverse this undesirable adventure. Ann Coulter, author of In Trump We Trust, tweeted her dismay, asking: “Why get involved in another Muslim catastrophe?” This could be the reason for Trump’s retreat, clarifying that America was “not going into Syria”, which only adds to the confusion.
In reality all the talk of red lines by Washington is so much hot air under present conditions. The bombing of Syria has made the situation worse by increasing tensions everywhere. Despite all the tough language, Washington will be forced to live with North Korean nuclear weapons, as it had to in the past with other countries. At the end of the day, it will also have to come to a deal with Russia in the Middle East. It has no real alternative. Russia has all the cards in Syria, with influence and a military presence, something that America does not have.
In the short term, the attempt by Washington to ratchet up pressure on Russia to end its support of Syrian president Assad will be met with cold water. Tillerson’s visit to Moscow did not lay down the law. On the contrary, the US was coldly rebuffed. The US unilateral action in Syria has soured relations with Russia, a key player in Syria, or even seriously damaged them. Without Russia, the Americans have no leverage in the region. The talk by the US that the problem in Syria was Moscow’s sponsorship of a “murderous regime” will simply add fuel to the fire. Tillerson will get no joy from the Russians with his accusations that Moscow was not necessarily complicit in the chemical attack, but “incompetent”. For the time being, the Russians have turned their backs on the Americans and increased their support for Assad.
Maverick in the White House
In reality, the Americans have shot themselves in the foot. The situation also exposes the limits of US power. They are impotent, as is the west.
The muted meeting of the G7 powers recognised their weakness. Even Tillerson was forced to temper his language. And the buffoon Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary, was slapped down over his appeal for more sanctions against Russia and Syria. “The question wasn’t mentioned by anyone, except Boris Johnson”, stated the French foreign secretary. Humiliatingly, he was treated like a naughty schoolboy, asked to sit in the corner in silence. In an impotent gesture, Boris called off a planned visit to Moscow, saying he would leave Tillerson to deliver a “clear and coordinated message”. The boycott simply reflected how little weight Britain has in international affairs. Johnson, reflecting the position of the UK, is simply a poodle of the US and is terrified of putting a foot out of place for fear of a kick from Uncle Sam. His isolation at the G7 shows how out of touch Britain is in world diplomacy.
The British are like yapping dogs; a solitary woof with no bite. Even Britain’s defence secretary, Michael Fallon, tried to puff up his self-importance up by accusing Russia of being directly complicit in the bloodshed in Syria. “This latest war crime happened on their watch”, thundered Fallon. “In the past few years, they have had every opportunity to pull levers and stop the civil war. By proxy, Russia is responsible for every civilian death last week.”
But this chest thumping is completely hollow. They will pay the price for this bravado.
With the maverick Trump in the White House swings in foreign policy are inevitable. With little thought out strategy, he is like a bull in a China shop. He has alienated the Europeans, threatening to undermine NATO. He has declared “America First”, which threatens a new period of protectionism. He has openly clashed the CIA and security services, the first time in history. He has turned the Republican Party upside down. In an already very unstable situation in world relations, he is just pouring petrol into the flames.