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Trump's Syria pantomime



There has been much talk about 'international norms' in the context of Syria of late. US president Donald Trump issued orders on Friday ordering 'the United States Armed Forces to launch precision strikes on targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad'. The UK and France also pinned their colours to the mission.

Donald TrumpThe mission had been authorised ostensibly in response to the use of poison gas in Douma leaving some 60 people dead. It was accompanied by a sense of strategic pantomime. Words like regime change were eschewed. Assad was not being directly challenged, though pressure was being brought to bear.

Trump cited the moral dimension, deeming the attacks in Douma 'the crimes of a monster'. It was language cued to the historical notion that certain aspects of warfare are to be condemned and even combated militarily. 'Following the horrors of World War I a century ago', reminded the US president, 'civilised nations joined together to ban chemical warfare.'

In Syria, this issue became relevant with the use of chemical weapons in August 2013. No military actions followed, despite President Barack Obama's threatening oratory. The British parliament similarly voted down a measure supporting military action against Assad. Instead, diplomacy was pursued, with the US and Russia reaching an agreement in September that year to account, inspect, control and eliminate Syria's chemical weapons.

In April last year, Trump dispelled any previously held reluctance, launching 59 cruise missiles on al-Shayat airbase in the aftermath of the attack in Khan Sheikhoun without urging Congressional involvement. Last Friday, Congress was again bypassed even if legislators were reluctant to criticise the move.

The criteria of such interventions is sketchy and almost always vague. The use of poison gas and chemical weapons has been deemed a gross violation of international law, but retaliation for such use remains nebulous. It is unclear, for instance, how successful such retaliatory measures can ever be.

Nor can the user of such weapons always be clearly identified — various combatant groups have also deployed chemical agents against civilian populations in Syria. The Trump administration was not waiting, claiming that chlorine had been used in Douma by government forces, topped by the possible use of sarin.


"A most troubling feature of Trump's belligerence is a sense of action without purpose, the macho in search of a goal."


Trump, as is his wont, declared the actions 'perfect' and trumpeted 'Mission Accomplished!' Hardly wise words, given their use by President George W. Bush on invading Iraq in 2003, a move that precipitated the rise of murderous sectarianism and the destabilisation of the Middle East.

Russia, against whom more sanctions are promised, was also unimpressed, noting how the UN Charter, that long challenged document, was being violated at enormous risk. 'Vladimir Putin in particular', went a statement from the Kremlin, 'stressed that if such actions committed in violation of the UN Charter continue, then it will inevitably lead to chaos in international relations.'

For veteran security correspondent David Ignatius, Washington faced one fundamental problem: 'how to calibrate military action this time so that it sends a clear deterrence message to Syria and Russia, without escalating the conflict'. But this, to a large extent, seems all too much like the re-run from April 2017, with the desire to punish and degrade Assad's chemical capabilities that are, at best, tokenistic.

If anything, there seemed to be something hollow about a gesture that all but acknowledges the success of the Russian-backed regime which has taken a stranglehold over the civil war. One conclusion is that brutality is fine as long as it avoids the use of certain types of force, namely chemical weapons.

A most troubling feature of Trump's belligerence is a sense of action without purpose, the macho in search of a goal. He made it clear earlier this month that Syria was winding down as a relevant theatre of engagement for US forces. In a conference with Baltic leaders, he was unequivocal, wanting 'to get out. I want to bring our troops back home.' Islamic State had, after all, been nearly defeated. These words would have made their mark in Moscow and Damascus.

The evaluations of the latest strikes have yet to come in with any degree of certainty. Of the 105 missiles launched, how many actually found their targets? One Syrian claim has been made that 13 missiles were shot down by air defences near Al-Kiswa. The Russian claim is even more optimistic, putting the number at 71.

Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the United Nations, will not have a bar of it. 'We are confident that we have crippled Syria's chemical weapons program. We are prepared to sustain this pressure, if the Syrian regime is foolish enough to test our will.' But being 'locked and loaded' has become a substitute for coherent policy, papered over by the illusion of humanitarian intervention.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Donald Trump, Syria



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Existing comments

Binoy Kampmark states that the Syrian govt and/or its Russian ally did use chemical weapons against Assad’s own people in 2013, 2017, and again now in Douma . I do not see the words ‘alleged’ or ‘disputed’. . Yet there has been no OPCW expert confirmation in any of these cases of alleged CW use by Assad . In all cases, the so-called evidence came from the White Helmets, a malevolent and criminal outfit, richly funded by the West and Sunni states, masquerading as a humanitarian relief organisation, that operates only in Inlamist extremist rebel areas of Syria , and led by James Le Mesurier a former British SAS senior officer.. It repeatedly lies , tortures , and kills , in pursuit of making convincing horror videos of gassing of children to flood the world media with. Don’t trust me - trust reputable on the ground observers like Robert Fisk, Seymour Hersh, and Australian Vanessa Beeley. I urge ES readers, if they are not afraid to access Facebook , to read my openaccess page Tony Kevin , on the war in Syria, on disintegrating Russia-West relations , and on the current Skripal false-flag British - organised attack on two relatively innocent people - one certainly innocent, a young Russian woman citizen visiting her father . This is an infamous story, of a ruthless information warfare operation being conducted by Britain and the American Deep State. It is pretty well exposed already , but there is a complete news blackout in Western MSM of the Russian Foreign Minister ‘s stunning revelations in Moscow on Saturday. . We need to know both sides, but almost all of what we hear comes only from the Western side’s information war. Tony Kevin, author of ‘Return to Moscow’.

Tony Kevin | 17 April 2018  

I consider this article by Binoy Kampmarkto be a very valid criticism of the recent attack on Syria by the US, the UK and France. However, I agree with the excellent comment by Tony Kevin in which he said that the word "alleged" should have been included when describing Donald Trump's claim that the Syrian Army was responsible. It needs to be said that the illegal attack was carried out before the international weapons inspection team arrived to investigate which group was responsible for the gas attack. This shows incredible contempt for the process of international law and should have been criticised by all governments who claim that they uphold the law - eg the Australian Government which has been supported by the ALP Opposition. Australia needs to have a more independent and non-aligned position on the threat to peace internationally and they should be concerned that our leaders do us a great disservice when they continue to support US military action around the world - especially when they do so in such a servile manner. We should also be concerned that our media - including the ABC and SBS - have been mostly running the US line on Syria and largely ignoring international experts who are critical of US military actions. As the terrorist groups in Syria are almost defeated, we should be assisting to bring peace in Syria so that the Syrians can determine their own political future.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 18 April 2018  

Can I just say that I find it amazing that otherwise reasonable people are prepared to accept the words of Putin against the combined views of all the Western democracies. This is in spite of the track record of Russia under Putin of assassinations and mass murder, invasions of neighbours, internet hacking, interference in elections, and bare-faced gob-smacking lying on a mass scale. I seem to be living in a different universe.

Eugenew | 19 April 2018  

Binoy I read your article with interest. Sceptical though it is. It should be noted that Assad paid $1 bn for Russian military assistance against the rebels. So Assad has hired Putin as his warlord. The other fact that should be noted is that the chemical attacks have only been directed against rebel held strongholds. Doesn't that strike you as odd? Whilst Trumps missile strikes may have been only partially successful, he is on the right track. Tha Assad regime is on the nose and should be toppled as he is a ruthless son of a bitch backed up by a known liar in Putin.

Francis Armstrong | 19 April 2018  

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