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Behind the Bombs
Trump's military action against the Syrian Government is shortsighted
By Teng Jianqun | NO. 18 MAY 3, 2018
People attend a rally in Washington D.C. on April 14 to protest against U.S. military strike in Syria the day before (XINHUA)

The sound of more than 100 missiles broke the silence in the small hours of April 14, flying toward Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians by the Syrian Government several days earlier. The U.S.-led strikes, conducted along with Britain and France, targeted multiple sites including a chemical research facility and a command post, according to the United States. Just hours later, Russia proposed a draft resolution condemning the attack at the UN Security Council. The document failed with three of the 15 council members in favor, eight voting in opposition and four abstentions.

The strikes occurred while inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were on their way to the town where the chemical weapon attack allegedly took place. Since no solid evidence had been gathered at the time, there was no justification for joint military action. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence nevertheless said that the United States and its allies may follow up with further strikes on Syrian targets.

No conclusive evidence

Rebel factions in the Syrian civil war claimed that government forces used chlorine gas in an attack on April 7 in the town of Douma near Damascus, with Western powers pointing the finger at the Syrian Government. Shortly after the supposed chemical weapon attack, U.S. President Donald Trump warned military action against the Syrian Government would follow in the next 24 to 48 hours. Just as many began to suspect the Trump administration of bluffing, the airstrikes took place.

Alleged chemical attacks have occurred frequently in Syria since 2013. In August that year, it was alleged that the Syrian Government had used the chemical agent sarin to attack opposition-controlled areas near Damascus, after which then U.S. President Barack Obama described how a red line had been crossed that demanded the use of force against the Syrian Government. In order to avoid U.S. military reprisals, the Syrian Government acknowledged possession of chemical weapons to facilitate its accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention, officially joining in October 2013. With the help of countries including China, the Syrian Government's chemical weapon stockpiles were either destroyed or transported to other countries ahead of the deadline in the following year.

At the time of the attack in 2013, the rebels had already agreed to withdraw from the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, and logic would follow that the Syrian Government had little incentive to launch a chemical attack there. Furthermore, some Iranian experts have pointed out that accusations against the Syrian Government of alleged chemical attacks always occur just after government forces have made progress against the opposition.

However, the Trump administration was firm in its insistence that the Syrian Government possessed chemical weapons and had used them against civilians, predicating non-negotiable retaliation against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Considering no conclusive evidence was presented, the United States' hasty military attack was in fact the result of multiple considerations besides the alleged chemical attack.

Trump faces internal pressure as a result of several investigations into his administration. One such inquiry is probing his links with Russia, an association which has long plagued his tenure in the White House. It was recently revealed that Trump sent messages suggesting that he might fire Robert Mueller, who was in charge of the investigation, increasing the already mounting pressure on the president.

Trump is also faced with allegations of having an affair with adult film actress Stormy Daniels. On April 9, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the office of Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen, and information related to Daniels, who alleges she had an affair with Trump in 2006, was seized, according to the Cable News Network. In the meantime, another adult film actress has come forward claiming to have had an affair with the president.

Trump's frequent cabinet reshuffles have also had a detrimental effect on the domestic and foreign policy-making of his administration. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired in March, and prior to his departure, several members of the president's team were fired, resigned or simply stopped advising. This high staff turnover looks set to continue. Trump also risks losing support from Wall Street after announcing tariffs against China that sparked fears of a trade war and saw the Dow Jones plummet. Without the support of Wall Street, it will be harder for Trump to fulfill his responsibilities as president.

The midterm elections will be held later this year, and Trump is eager to allay the investigations besieging his office while increasing his approval ratings. It was in an effort to alleviate some of this huge internal pressure that Trump conducted air strikes in response to the alleged chemical attack in Syria.

Policy shift

Trump's Middle East policy seeks to increase U.S. control in the region by cooperating with old allies, marking a return to previous U.S. strategies. Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, elaborated on this policy not long after Trump took office, detailing the three objectives of countering terrorism, overthrowing the Assad administration and competing with Russia and Iran for influence in the region.

Today, the war on terror is coming to a close. Despite Trump's intention to withdraw troops from Syria, certain U.S. interest groups are unwilling to see U.S. strategic contraction in the Middle East and will deploy all means necessary to keep the Trump administration entangled in the Syrian crisis.

After the missile attack in April, the second round of military action launched by the Trump administration against Syria following another a year ago, Trump said that the mission had been accomplished and that the U.S. could continue to strike the Syrian Government at any time. The U.S. will continue to strengthen geopolitical competition against Russia, Iran and Syria. Syria will become the focus of the United States' Middle East policy, which will in turn deepen political cooperation between Russia, Iran and Syria. Military cooperation between Russia and Iran could even reach new heights with Iran claiming that it would welcome the deployment of Russian Tupolev Tu-22M bombers to its territory.

The Syria policy adopted by Trump is shortsighted, fragmented and driven by immediate interests. The possibility of another military strike on Syria is high, but military intervention will only aggravate the deterioration of the peace process in the country and put relations between the U.S. and Russia under even greater strain.

The author is a research fellow with the China Institute of International Studies

China's Position

Special Envoy of the Chinese Government on the Syrian Issue Xie Xiaoyan expounded China's position on the Syrian crisis at a press conference in Cairo on April 23:

China has always rejected the use of force or the threat of the use of force in international relations. There is no military solution to the Syrian issue; the only way out is a political settlement.

China has always rejected any use of chemical weapons and underscored the need for a comprehensive, just and objective probe into the alleged gas attack in Syria.

China maintains communication with all parties involved in the Syrian issue and has invited delegates from the Syrian Government and opposition parties to visit China successively to promote a political settlement.

China cares about the humanitarian crisis taking place in Syria and has already provided 740 million yuan ($117.5 million) in aid for Syrian refugees.

China is to continue consultation and coordination with Egypt and other countries to realize a political settlement in the Syrian issue.

(Source: Xinhua News Agency)

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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