What does Trump gain from punishing the Syrian regime?

Amin Saikal
12 April 2017

One wonders whether the cruise-missile attack was designed more to benefit Trump than the Syrian people in the face of a brutal regime.

The United States' cruise-missile attack on a Syrian airbase in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad's regime may bear little fruit, if it turns out to be a one-off operation. It cannot change the balance of forces on the ground that has increasingly favoured the Assad regime.

The US has not ruled out further military operations, but the chances appear remote. They carry the risk of further deteriorating US-Russian relations. As the main backers of the Assad regime, Russian and Iran have condemned the attack as an act of "aggression", and denied that the Syria government was responsible for the use of chemical weapons. This raises the question as to what, precisely, prompted US President Donald Trump to act against the Assad regime?
A week before the missile strike, the Trump administration had made it clear that the removal of the Assad regime was no longer a priority for it. This was in accord with Trump's vow to put "America first" and improve relations with Russia, to address cooperatively some of the world problems, including the devastating Syrian conflict. Trump had viewed the Assad regime as a necessary evil to combat the so-called Islamic State in particular, and forces of radical Islam in general as the real enemy. He had also never said, as his predecessor, Barack Obama had done in 2013, that if the Syrian regime crossed the "red line" by deploying chemical weapons, the US would act. The threat that Obama made but failed to carry out was instrumental in opening the way for Russia to escalate its military involvement, in conjunction with Iran's deployment of forces, to save the Assad government from collapsing.

Yet within a week of incentivising the Assad regime and, by implication, sending positive signals to its international supporters (despite its belligerent attitude towards Iran as a "destabilising force" in the region), Trump announced he was moved by the sight of the victims of the Syrian air force's chemical attack. He declared there would be no role for Assad in the future of Syria and he authorised the missile strike at the base from where the chemical weapons were allegedly delivered.

The US now has two options.

One is for it to raise the cost of the war for the Syrian, Russian and Iranian governments. This requires repeated US operations, under the weight of which the Assad regime and its backers may find it expedient to opt for a political settlement, possibly without Assad; alternatively the regime could collapse, resulting in more chaos and bloodshed, given the disunity among the opposition and lack of a viable alternative.
The second option is for the US to remain content with a one-off missile intervention and let the current situation continue, with the Assad regime surviving, and Russia and Iran claiming a kind of victory. This would be at the cost of Trump's promotion of himself as a decisive leader and America's standing in the region, which has already been tarnished badly in the wake of the US's Afghan and Iraqi debacles.

The Trump leadership team has now placed itself in a tight corner: if it engages in more military action, it may or may not open the way for a political settlement; and if it sits back and does nothing, it harms itself.

One wonders whether the cruise-missile attack was designed more to benefit Trump than the Syrian people in the face of a brutal regime. It is highly possible that Trump may have had a number of considerations in mind. They could have included, most importantly, to bolster his sagging ratings in the opinion polls (the lowest of any president before him at this stage of his presidency); to show that he is a decisive leader not only internally but also externally; to give Israel more assurance that it can count on him as a devoted supporter; and to provide confidence to Arab states, especially leaders of the member states of the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, as well as Egypt, that the US no longer stands for democracy and human rights, but rather what serves best its interests.

The problem with these variables is that they embolden Israel to maintain its repressive occupation of the Palestinian land, they drive further the Gulf Arab states to view Iran as the No.1 regional enemy, and they push Iran more in the direction of Russia, despite its serious historical reservations, and open up the entire Levant to wider Russian influence. The ultimate outcome could be to reinforce another fault line dividing the Gulf region between the northern and southern entities: one featuring Russian and Iranian dominance, and the other under the US-backed Arab influence.

Such a development cannot help the cause of regional cooperation, stability and security that the area needs badly. So far, it appears Trump is an impulsive leader, which may prove to be counterproductive in the Middle East and beyond.

Amin Saikal is distinguished professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the ANU.