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Another deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria and another retaliatory airstrike by the United States raises the possibility of not only protracted conflict in the Middle East but escalating tensions with Russia and Iran. Or so we’ve been told.
But already, the implications of Friday’s cruise missile attack—as with the limited strike on a Syrian air baseir base this time last year—suggest anything but the possibility of World War III. Contrary to the knee-jerk reactions by some on the far-right—who once again are insisting that President Trump has “sold out”—this latest strike instead suggests a further strengthening of American standing in the international community, as well as greater steps towards peace in the Middle East.
As explanation for why this is so, we can look at the president’s own words as he laid them out in his brief remarks on the action in Syria.
Another Calculated Attack
In his remarks, the president says explicitly that the primary purpose of this strike was, once again, a very limited one. In this case it was to target the chemical weapons themselves. In the last strike, the target was the airfield from which the weapons had been launched.
But even then, the United States did everything it could to avoid as many unnecessary casualties as possible. It has been reported that the United States government warned the Russian government ahead of time of approximately where the strikes would land, giving them plenty of time to evacuate their own forces before the missiles fell.
In performing a very precise strike on Syria, the United States is taking reasonable action that does not necessarily constitute a declaration of war. This comes shortly after the president announced his plans finally to withdraw American forces from the region after the complete defeat of ISIS (which he also mentioned in his remarks). Trump knows the primary goal for the United States of any involvement with the conflict in that country is about to be achieved, and is thus careful to make sure that such actions as this strike still convey American strength, without crossing the line into total intervention. In taking such measures as informing the Russians where the bombs will fall, the potential for escalation is severely diminished.
At the same time, as we have made it clear that the core reason for this attack is the chemical weapons and that we have no interest or intention of entangling ourselves further in the region, we are actually making it more likely that Russia will have to adopt the same posture as the United States when it comes to chemical weapons—or, at the very least, be less supportive of the Syrian government in such confrontations as this.
As reported by Business Insider, the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime most likely flies in the face of any advice being given to them by the Russian government; they are not as effective as conventional bombs, and only hurt the public perception of Assad’s regime while also prompting this kind of outside intervention. In that sense, perhaps Russia might even be more prepared to turn a blind eye towards future actions against the country, especially if Syria is snubbing Russia’s wishes.
To that end, even Syrian officials have already conceded that they are willing to move on from these latest strikes if they prove to be a quick and precise effort, rather than a drawn-out campaign. Reuters reported that a pro-Assad official said “if U.S.-led strikes are now over,” then the “attack will be seen as limited.”
As with ast year’s strike, this attack appears to have moved from a carefully calculated execution to quick concessions from those that were hit. With the primary target being the deadly chemical weapons themselves, the strike alone does not indicate an escalation or an invasion; it is simply yet another slap in the face as punishment, and a patient but firm display of American strength.
An Even Broader Coalition
The size and makeup of the coalition that led these latest missile strikes should speak volumes about the increase in support for such measures, and thus the decreased possibility of retaliation. But it also reveals a startling shift in responsibility within the region.
Whereas the United States has previously borne the burden of such action entirely on its own, this latest strike was carried out by a broad coalition of world powers. Namely, the United States was joined in this effort by the United Kingdom and France, which only makes possible retaliation by Russia even less likely as they are faced with an even larger and stronger coalition.
But another key partner that some are already overlooking is Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with the three major powers in preparation for these strikes is the one significant difference between last year’s strike and this year’s strike.
This cam about because of one key event that took place after the original strike in April of 2017: Trump’s historic speech to the Middle Eastern countries gathered at the Riyadh Summit. In that speech, he threw down the gauntlet for the majority of Middle Eastern nations to determine their own fate, to solve their own problems, and to no longer depend on the United States’ assistance. He reiterated this same stance in his remarks, saying that only the people of that region can truly fix the problems there.
And the effects of his speech were swift and pronounced. It was Saudi Arabia who led the charge against one of the leading state sponsors of terrorism in the region, leading over a dozen other Middle Eastern nations in severing most diplomatic ties with Qatar. Saudi Arabia also took great strides in dealing with its own internal corruption and advancing human rights; and the figurehead for this change is the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly referred to as “MBS.”
Now, MBS is once again showing his determination to further advance Saudi Arabia as the new leader of stability efforts in the Middle East, declaring that Saudi Arabia is willing to join in on the international response to the chemical attacks in Syria. The fruits of Trump’s speech at the Riyadh Summit are continuing to flourish, and thissuggests that future action is more likely to be led by Syria’s geographic neighbors than by the top world powers.
Others Are Watching
As with any move in foreign policy, the most important thing to remember is that one move almost always affects another move, no matter how far apart on the board the pieces may be. Beyond the immediate implications that this move carries for the Middle East, and beyond the broader implications for the relationship between the United States and Russia, the ripples of this action in Syria could very well be felt all the way in North Korea.
Prior to these latest developments in Syria, the top focus in foreign policy in the media was the ever-increasing possibility that North Korea may actually agree to denuclearize.
Thus, with the historic and highly-anticipated summit between the United States and North Korea slowly approaching (set for sometime next month), President Trump knows that he must maintain an image of strength and resolve all over the globe. He knows that weakness in one area potentially can translate to weakness in another area. If North Korea sees the president acting indecisive or weak in one volatile region of the world, then it may be led to believe that he will be similarly weak in dealing with the Korean Peninsula.
At the same time, he has proven that he is capable of juggling multiple international crises at once, which further strengthens his image and most likely makes North Korea feel as if they are just another customer, rather than the center of attention. Kim Jong-Un is likely frustrated by that fact, but also probably feels that this makes the upcoming talks even more valuable since he has managed to earn even a portion of President Trump’s time.
The message to Assad was also a message to Kim, and there’s no doubt that both men heard it loud and clear.
Photo credit: Matthew Daniels/U.S. Navy via Getty Images