14th April 2017
Pic: Trump announces air strike on Syria
Media coverage of international events over the past week has been an object lesson in obfuscation. Much of what is going on is confusing. As far as the West is concerned, in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is the bad guy. Over the past five years, a loose coalition of NATO and unsavoury Arab dictators, from Saudi Arabia to Qatar, has poured resources into unseating Assad, to no avail.
Quite whom they are actively supporting is not entirely clear. The West appear to think that there is a Western orientated liberal opposition in waiting, who would step in should Assad fall. Experience from the debacles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya would seem to suggest otherwise. None has achieved any significant degree of stability since Western intervention. None shapes up as a Western style liberal democracy.
The Arab dictatorships appear more inclined to arm the jihadi insurgent element of the opposition, whether that is al-Qaeda or Islamic State, as long as they dislodge Assad and minimise the influence of their main enemy in the region, Iran. Although having one foot in the West, as a NATO member, Turkey would also appear to subscribe to this view of the world.
Then there is Russia, the only foreign power actually to have been invited to intervene in Syria, by the internationally recognised government of Assad. The Russians have their own agenda, to gain influence in the oil rich Middle East, as well as defeating the medievalism of Islamic State. Their intervention has seen Islamic State pushed back and the opposition in Syria dwindle. The main Russian objective is influence in the region which, at the moment, means supporting Assad but he could easily be jettisoned for an alternative, if Russia could maintain its foothold.
With Russian military support, the Syrian government has increasingly been on the front foot in recent months. Islamic State, in particular, and the fragments of alternative opposition have been pushed back. Quite why the Assad government would choose such a moment to launch a chemical weapons attack on its own people is a mystery. It may come down to the assessment of one US diplomat, who stated, “who knows why evil men do evil things?” but international politics is usually more complex. The Syrians claim that in a legitimate strike against insurgents they hit a chemical weapons dump, which released the gases.
The West rejected this explanation and, without any actual evidence or internationally recognised investigation, not to mention any international agreement or discussion, the United States launched a missile attack against a Syrian air base. Bizarrely this has resulted in Western liberals vehemently opposed to President Trump on all questions, applauding the US action. Right wingers such as Nigel Farage have been critical of US intervention, as going against Trump’s stated America First position.
There is a strong body of opinion that the US strike was a one off warning shot, not likely to result in US intervention on the ground. The fear of a proxy or even direct conflict with Russia seems to be enough to hold the US at bay for now. Trump has described relations between the world’s two major superpowers as being at “an all time low”, a position it would be assumed that he would want to rectify.
However, given the chaotic nature of policy development in the United States, and the narcissism of its Commander in Chief, anything is possible.