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Maintaining a steady Syria policy

After six years of war, the Syrian crisis is nowhere near resolution. The costs have been severe on all. What was once an uprising against the rule of iron-fisted Bashar al-Assad is now a full-scale civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and drawn in global powers. Five million people have turned into refugees, a tide that has also poured into Europe and created severe tensions there.

Last week, by ordering a rain of Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian airfield, from where the Assad regime allegedly perpetrated a chemical gas attack on its restive civilian population, United States President Donald Trump entangled himself in the bitter conflict. He now stands face to face with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who supports Mr Assad. The situation could turn very ugly.

Mr Trump was applauded for ordering the strike, which was driven by his indignation on seeing the bodies of children in their fathers' arms. Decisive US action was viewed by observers as "an overdue reprisal". However, Mr Trump will now have to confront the dilemmas of intervention, like his predecessor in the White House, and he has to do this with a clear head. It is worryingly evident that he has no coherent strategy to offer. Emotion alone does not make for strategic clarity.

Washington once said Mr Assad's future would be decided by the Syrian people. Today, it asserts that peace is not possible as long as the dictator remains in power. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says he considers Mr Assad's departure to be only a matter of time. Some have counted "five different policies in two weeks" on Syria. If one goes back to Mr Trump's tweets in 2013, his views of the crisis have certainly zigzagged. While this may be required when walking through a minefield, it is important to not lose sight of the destination. A one-off strike on Mr Assad is one thing. A sustained campaign for his removal is quite another and is especially fraught because of Russia's stout backing for the dictator. The rest of the world worries because the stakes are high, and confidence is low in a still-green US president and his equally inexperienced, and divided, coterie.

Meanwhile, Russia, which had pledged to rid Syria of chemical weapons, is playing to a plan. It has not only rejected suggestions that the Syrian government was behind the deadly gas attack, but it also claims to have intelligence that more "provocations" would be orchestrated in order to pin the blame on Mr Assad. There is another name for all this, and it is hybrid warfare. Russia's London Embassy has threatened "real war" if the US goes too far. But Mr Putin's real geostrategic aim could be to fracture the Nato alliance and marginalise the US. To do this, Mr Putin is employing a variety of means, including using Mr Assad to retain a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean. To deal with the Syrian crisis, Mr Trump must first read Mr Putin well.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2017, with the headline 'Maintaining a steady Syria policy'. Print Edition | Subscribe