Despite the consensus in the agenda–setting media, we do not yet know whether the Assad regime was behind the chemical weapons attack in the rebel held town of Khan Sheikhoun of Idlib province on Tuesday. There is ample evidence that nerve agents—probably sarin—caused the death of dozens and injured hundreds. It’s also clear that the Syrian Air Force bombed the town at the same time. What we don’t yet know is whether the chemical agents released were part of the payload dropped by the regime’s bombers as Western powers have alleged, or whether the bombs stuck a rebel weapons depot containing chemical weapons as Russia has claimed. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Assad would blatantly test the new administration in this manner. What is clear is that it was not in Assad’s interest to be caught red-handed just as the White House was signaling that it was not interested in getting rid of him.
The White House went for the strike because the chemical attack and the media’s reaction to it made it irresistible. After all, what was there to lose? Trump could distinguish himself from the previous occupant of the White House and provide succor both to much of his ‘America: Fuck Yeah!’ support base as well as the liberal hawks who occupy the center of Washington foreign policymaking. Indeed, in elite foreign policy circles, the chemical attack was very much seen as an opportunity that doesn’t come often and must be seized; what the President of the Council on Foreign Relations called “a rare second chance.”
As the story gained traction in the media, it became apparent to the administration that a symbolic action like a barrage of cruise missile strikes would be a big propaganda win for President Trump. Before the attack and even for a short while afterwards, the line from the White House was that ousting Assad was the last thing on the agenda. Whether that’s still the case is unclear. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in the aftermath of the strike that “steps are underway” to get rid of Assad. So is the administration seeking to oust Assad? No one knows; possibly not even the President himself.
The fundamental challenge of any strategy to oust Assad remains unchanged. There is no viable replacement for Assad. The rebellion is composed largely of Salafi jihadist outfits like al Nusra (since rebranded) and Ahrar al Sham. The United States could try to impose a moderate warlord as the leader of a post-Assad Syria. But that is unlikely to carry water in either rebel-held towns or regime-friendly cities. The only way a foreign power can impose a new regime in Syria is to occupy the country. United States armed forces could certainly pull that off—despite the Russian presence—but, politically, it would be extremely challenging for the administration to sell a large scale pacification campaign both to the foreign policy elite and to its support base.
The about-turn in Syria is part of the taming of Donald Trump by the establishment. The most important news of the week on the US foreign policy front wasn’t about Syria. Rather, it was the ouster of Steve Bannon, along with the reinstatement of the Joint Chiefs chairman and intelligence director, and the addition of the energy secretary, CIA director and UN ambassador, to the National Security Council’s principals committee. That event marks a decisive break from the amateur hour of the early Trump administration. The Bannon-Miller-Sessions wing of the administration seems to have lost a second round (after the Flynn affair) in their battle for the soul of the Trump White House on national security, to the centrist, a.k.a. liberal hegemonist, Tillerson-Mattis-McMaster wing.
Two other developments have been overshadowed by the strikes. The first is President Xi’s visit to Mar-a-Lago. That’s possibly the most important relationship of the Trump administration. If Trump thinks that shooting off some cruise missiles at a defenseless country is going to impress Xi, he is going to be surprised. Xi has more cards to play than any other nation facing the United States on the world stage. He would strongly prefer a United States bogged down in Syria. [I’ll write a full-length post on the balance of power in the Western Pacific soon.]
The second development that was overshadowed was not unrelated to the strikes. It was the reorientation of US Middle East policy in favor of the Sunni Arab autocrats. The strikes themselves are bound to have warmed the heart of Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s aggressive, young, de-facto leader. They also cap a remarkable couple of weeks in which Tillerson lifted the ban on fighter jet sales to Bahrain, a Saudi dependency; promised precision weapons to Saudi Arabia for its terror campaign in Yemen; and embraced Sisi, Egypt’s strongman. These developments are, of course, entirely congruent with the new hardline policy on Syria. The Policy Tensor had imagined that Nick Burns would run Clinton’s foreign policy when she became president. Now it seems that Tillerson is implementing Burns’ agenda for him.
What is really striking is that, despite expectations to the contrary, the United States is stumbling into a major confrontation with Russia. Whether this is the result of Trump’s financial ties to the oil monarchies or the lure of an easy win on the home front is not entirely clear. What is clear is that Trump is entangling the United States in a secondary theatre even as he meets with the real challenge to US primacy. Xi could not help but be pleased with the developments of the last few days.