‘Not on my watch’ says Donald Trump
Last week’s developments in the Syrian quagmire raised a very important question. Is the international community finally coming to terms with the view that a new political - and perhaps military - strategy is needed to plant the roots for lasting peace in Syria?
Reports from Khan Shaykhun in Syria’s Idlib province last Tuesday stated the death of 86 persons, 26 of them children, because of what many have suggested to be a substantial chemical weapons attack apparently involving sarin gas. As a result, President Donald Trump instructed the U.S. military to retaliate boldly with Tomahawk missiles, targeting the Al-Shairat airbase in Homs.
Russia condemned the U.S. strikes, calling the event a “show of force” and carrying the issue to the U.N. Security Council. Russia’s argument was based on the conclusion that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reached three years ago, that the Syrian regime does not have chemical weapons. Russia further claimed that the rebel forces in Idlib produced toxic land mines and the Syrian air force attacked that production facility.
The U.S. strikes shake the tacit understanding between Russia and the United States reached in Syria in combat against ISIS terrorism. Pentagon has stated that the Russian side was appropriately informed before the strikes took place. Obviously, Russian assets in and around the Al-Shairat airbase have not been damaged. In spite of that, however, Russia suspended the Memorandum of Understanding on Prevention of Flight Safety Incidents signed with the U.S. which was an essential instrument for the conduct of complex operations in Syria. This situation is dangerous and risks a possible escalation of tension.
The use of chemical weapons has been called a “red line” by the U.S. since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. In 2013, Washington was on the brink of launching a similar strike, if not opening a more comprehensive military response, against the al-Assad regime because of a similar incident. At that time, the U.S. administration and President Obama did not resort to such retaliation.
Today, there is a new president and a new administration in the U.S. Donald Trump has promised to “make America great again.” This is thought to be one of the main reasons why he was elected president. He is expected to show a more determined, decisive U.S. foreign policy. This foreign policy conduct may not necessarily need to resort to military intervention in different parts of the world. It needs, however, to show international public opinion that the U.S. is coming back to international politics to defend the moral high ground. The use of chemical weapons is a red line to which Trump feels obliged to respond. In other words, he says “not on my watch!”
Will it transform into a new U.S. political and military strategy in Syria? The U.S. has made it clear that air strikes against the al-Shairat airbase were mainly a response to a situation that appeared to be the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. The U.S. authorities have also stated that if the regime continued to use chemical weapons, the U.S. retaliation would continue.
It is necessary to underline that Washington’s priority in Syria - and in Iraq – is still the fight against ISIS. Unless there is a clear victory in this fight against terrorism in the region, it will be hard to see a diversion of target and strategy. Therefore, interpreting the U.S. strikes as a shift in policy would be drawing the wrong conclusion. Such a conclusion may also endanger the fragile Astana process.
Washington and Moscow will try to reestablish the understanding they reached in Syria and will try to avoid any challenge to their tacit understanding to coordinate their fight against ISIS. It appears that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit will address this issue as a top agenda item during his talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Ankara has a role to play. This role should be to calm down the opposition in order to avoid drawing the wrong conclusion and further escalating the conflict in Syria. After all, Ankara is a guarantor of the Astana process and should stick to its commitments to try to bring about a solution of the Syrian problem. Such a solution should not be sought through military means. Ankara could be a significant partner in problem solving if it prioritizes diplomacy and peaceful resolution of conflicts.