Friday, 7 April 2017

Trump's Syria U-turn -- what next?

I think Donald Trump is about to have the best weekend of his life. And that scares me.

No more crazy Trump. No more ineffective Trump. Instead, it'll be resolute Trump. Decisive Trump.

Mr Trump goes to war.

Better yet: China's president, Xi Jinping, is his guest at Mar a Lago. What a way to impress him! 'Excuse me, Mr President, I just need to give the order to launch a cruise missile attack.'

But we need to take a deep breath. So do the news channels. Above all, so does Mr Trump.

Because what has changed? Well, Mr Trump has changed, that's for sure. In August 2013, when Barack Obama was considering whether to launch missile strikes after a chemical weapons attack, Mr Trump tweeted: 'The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria -- big mistake if he does not!'

In another tweet, he wrote: 'President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside.'

So he has changed his tune. He saw the reports (presumably on Fox News) of the attack on Khan Sheikhun and said that as a result, 'my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.'

The implication that he hadn't taken much notice until now of what was happening there is deeply worrying.

The 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that landed on the al-Shayrat military airfield near Homs were Mr Trump's signal -- to President Assad and, even more importantly, to President Putin -- that he is not Barack Obama. But what exactly did they signal?

The Pentagon says it warned the Russians ahead of time what was coming. Presumably the Russians warned the Syrians. Anything that could be moved out of harm's way will have been moved. Result? One airfield out of commission.

It is not always a bad thing for political leaders to give the impression that they are unpredictable. It makes it much more difficult for their enemies to calibrate responses. But Donald Trump is not unpredictable in a good way.

He is erratic. His aides have no way of assessing what his next move will be. As a result, they can't plan ahead. Do they have any idea what they're going to do next, now that they moved the Syria conflict into a new phase? I doubt it very much.

The US is now at war in Syria with both sides at the same time. It is attacking IS and other anti-Assad jihadi groups, as well as Assad's own air force. This is not what you might call a coherent strategy.

The award-winning Muslim American writer Moustafa Bayoumi wrote in The Guardian: 'At its best, Thursday’s reckless and largely ineffective bombing does little but make US lawmakers feel good about themselves. At its worst, it deepens a war which the US has no idea how to end.'

Next week, Mr Trump's all-but-invisible secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, will be in Moscow for talks with President Putin. He will, no doubt, be lectured about the US's 'illegal aggression'; what he will not hear, I suspect, is that Mr Putin is likely to be mightily irritated by Assad's renewed use of chemical weapons. Just when things were going so well ...

Back in 2013, Mr Obama's secretary of state, John Kerry, was roundly mocked for suggesting that if the US did take military action then in response to the chemical weapons attack in Gouta, it would be an 'unbelievably small, limited kind of effort'.

Looking back, it seems to have been a pretty accurate description of what President Trump authorised last night. The fact remains, though -- given that I wouldn't trust Mr Trump with a water pistol, I'm far from thrilled that he's now authorising missile attacks.

He may well enjoy his weekend -- but the Syria quagmire will still be on his desk on Monday.

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