President Trump’s missile strike on Syria seemed as determined to stick it to President Obama as to the Assad regime. The initial statement from the White House on the Sarin gas attack that prompted the strike had more words of condemnation for Obama than for the Syrian ruler. In the matter of airstrikes, as in other things, it is important to Trump to be the un-Obama. But one night of missiles is not a decisive blow. Beyond the ruined aircraft hangars, the Syrian battlefield is little changed. What is the American plan? What’s next?
Perhaps President Trump has not thought about this. His decision to bomb seemed emotional, justifiably so you might think, faced with images of the doll-like corpses of children poisoned by nerve gas. ‘Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack,’ the President said. ‘No child of God should ever suffer such horror.’
But his action was at odds with his previous declarations. Trump was against bombing Syria before he was for it. ‘America First,’ he proclaimed on the campaign trail. ‘Syria is not our problem.’ After the 2013 chemical attack he tweeted: ‘President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside.’
The about-turn is dizzying. From the outside, the President sometimes seems like an impetuous King Lear, policy at the court on Pennsylvania Avenue remade after a few words from Ivanka, his Regan. ‘Heartbroken and outraged,’ she tweeted after the Sarin attack. Following the retaliation, she said: ‘I’m proud of my father.’ (Steve Bannon had better hope he is not Gloucester at the court of King Donald.)
The about-face angered Trump’s allies in the media. Alex Jones, standard bearer of the alt-right, told his large internet audience that the Sarin attack was a false flag operation by the jihadists. ‘Why would Assad do that when he’s winning?’ The US was acting as al-Qaeda’s air force, he went on. ‘Ninety-five per cent of the rebels are Wahhabis-slash-al Qaeda–slash-Isis. Our elites have sold out to Islam. We’re so double crossed.’
Trump supporters – the ones who believe in the ‘deep state’ and the ‘globalist conspiracy’ – are at the very least confused. They wonder if America is once again the world’s policeman – the very thing that Trump campaigned against. A search party has been sent out to look for Trump’s principles, said one observer in Washington. But Trump never seemed to possess settled beliefs. His opinions have changed over the years, or between the campaign and office; sometimes between the beginning of one sentence and the end. The personality of the US president, always important, matters now as never before.
This may be of strategic benefit for the United States. Trump the unpredictable wielder of America’s devastating firepower is the embodiment of Nixon’s madman theory. The theory says you will deter your enemies if they don’t know what you’re going to do next – maybe because you yourself don’t know. Trump does ‘crazy’ perfectly. China, North Korea, and a host of other potential enemies, take note.
The Syrian regime probably thought the US didn’t care what they did. A series of chlorine gas attacks in recent weeks had brought no response. A week ago, the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said Assad’s future would be decided by the Syrian people (not outside powers, he seemed to imply). But the missile strike was in America’s vital national interest, Trump said, reading a script that might have been written by the generals he’s surrounded himself with – that interest being to enforce the taboo against using chemical weapons.
That still leaves the problem of what to do about a civil war that has raged for six years, the moral and foreign policy problem of our time. During the campaign, Trump tweeted: ‘We should stay the hell out of Syria, the “rebels” are just as bad as the current regime.’ When candidate Trump said that, the CIA was arming and training as many as 80 rebel groups, under its operation Timber Sycamore. If the missile strikes are to be more than a passing mushroom cloud in the sky, Timber Sycamore will have to be upgraded. The rebels have not changed much since Trump was tweeting his misgivings. Some of them are Salafi – religious fundamentalists – almost all are religious to one degree or another. It is not clear if they can bring democracy, or even stability, to Syria. Yet missile strikes alone will not end Assad’s rule or the war itself.
It would be wrong to say that the US was entirely a bystander in Syria until now. But the intervention was ineffectual, economic sanctions here, a dribble of arms to the rebels there. In the summer of 2011, President Obama declared that Assad should go, thinking he was on his way out anyway. The regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya had all been swept away. It felt as if Syria was next. Obama and his aides did not want to be on the wrong side of history. The Syrian opposition took his words as a sign of intent. They were not.
So the US watched as opposition-held areas were told to ‘surrender or starve’, as Aleppo became Syria’s Guernica. Many Syrians bitterly accuse the US – having encouraged them to revolt – of sharing in the responsibility for the past six years, the (estimated) 400,000 dead, the 12 million displaced. One missile strike now is not a new US policy; presidential outrage is no substitute for thought; a gesture is not a strategy (though 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles are one hell of a gesture). If the missiles are a one off, President Trump will find himself continuing the Obama policy in Syria: half in, half out, intervening, but not decisively, watching while Syria burns.
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent and fellow of the New America foundation in Washington.