Trump’s reaction to Syrian chemical attack: Is US back on traditional track? | editorials | Hindustan Times
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Trump’s reaction to Syrian chemical attack: Is US back on traditional track?

The US ship of State is now starting to show an increasing tendency to hew to a straighter and more predictable course. There has been growing evidence that mainstream foreign-policy thinking is slowly seeping back into the White House and the line ministries below. The question is whether this signifies a fundamental change in the US’ policy towards the Syrian conflict. That is not clear yet, especially given the highly personalised and mercurial nature of President Donald Trump’s policy-making.

editorials Updated: Apr 07, 2017 22:29 IST
A Syrian doctor treating a child following a suspected chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, April 4,  2017 (This photo provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Edlib Media Center, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting)
A Syrian doctor treating a child following a suspected chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, April 4, 2017 (This photo provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Edlib Media Center, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting)(AP)

The Syrian civil war has taken another turn with the massive cruise missile strike by the United States on an airbase of the Bashar al-Assad government. The proximate cause of the attack was a horrific chemical gas attack on civilians near the province of Idlib, an attack that was likely carried out by the Assad regime. The question is whether this signifies a fundamental change in the US’ policy towards the Syrian conflict. That is not clear yet, especially given the highly personalised and mercurial nature of President Donald Trump’s policy-making.

Nonetheless, there are three observations that can be made about the attack. One, the attack has sent a strong signal that the Trump administration will no longer remain aloof as the Syrian war seemed to be headed towards an Assad victory – and, therefore, a success for his Iranian and Russian backers. This does not mean Washington is again seeking Assad’s overthrow. Mr Trump noticeably called for a larger international effort to bring an end to the war. But the US now seems prepared to help the non-extremist rebels have a stronger hand in any future negotiations.

Two, though designed to help other rebel factions the attack will give some breathing space to the Islamic State (IS). While the overthrow of the terrorist State remains the number one US strategic goal, the fact the IS as a territorial entity is now clearly on its last legs means more traditional geopolitical considerations are beginning to surface in the US’s policy calculations.

Three, there has been growing evidence, most notably the eviction of Mr Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon from the National Security Council, that the US president’s more ideologically-driven advisers are slowly being marginalised in the US government. Their influence remains and the Trump administration is likely to remain unpredictable and mercurial in many matters given the character of the president.

But the Syrian attack, the increasing hostility to Russia, the return to a one-China policy and the seeming decision to not rip up the Iran-US nuclear agreement are among the signs that mainstream foreign-policy thinking is slowly seeping back into the White House and the line ministries below.

With almost every major foreign policy and security position in the government – whether the intelligence agencies, the Pentagon, the National Security Adviser’s post and the State Department –held by seasoned veterans of the US establishment this should not come as a total surprise.

The US ship of State is now starting to show an increasing tendency to hew to a straighter and more predictable course. This alone is a welcome development: Capriciousness at the highest level is unsettling in small countries, but with a superpower it is dangerous.

Mr Trump is not the type to embed something like the Syrian attack in any larger strategic explanation, however, his actions give a sense of business as usual.