Trump signals with Syrian missile strike: US willing and able to use firepower

LONDON - The volley of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles did more than just pulverise a Syrian air base - it also served to signal that the United States under the Trump administration is willing and able to use its considerable firepower should it choose to.

To be sure senior American officials are going to great lengths to deny suggestions that the US missile attack represents a fundamental shift in US policy in the Middle East.

“I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture,” said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “There has been no change in that status”, he added.

But it is clear that there have been shifts.

President Donald Trump could have simply ignored the recent horrific gas attack in the Syrian city of Idlib, apparently perpetrated by Syrian government troops.




The Obama administration ignored international outcries over previous chemical and barrel bomb attacks on Syrian civilians, blaming its inaction on Russia, which vetoed any United Nations Security Council resolution pinning the blame on the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

Indeed, a mere few days before the current crisis erupted, US officials signalled even greater disinterest in Syria, by letting it be known that, unlike their Obama predecessors, they are prepared to drop American insistence on the removal of Mr Assad, effectively conceding that the Syrian leader and his Russian and Iranian backers have won the civil war.

The abrupt change from a policy of studied indifference to one of ordering the single-biggest American airstrike in the six-year Syrian conflict was advocated by US military planners who are anxious to emphasise that the US continues to make a clear distinction between conventional weapons and the use of weapons of mass destruction, such as gas attacks.

For President Trump, it was also an opportunity to separate his administration from the failed Middle East policies of the outgoing Obama team.

As Mr Trump reminded journalists, it was President Obama who threatened to use force by drawing a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons by Syria, only to ignore his own threats.

And it was the Obama administration which signed a deal with Russia over the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenals, an arrangement which was clearly not respected.

By authorising the missile strikes, Mr Trump not only satisfied US strategic objectives, but also burnished his own record as a decisive leader.

The missile strikes were cleverly handled. Russia was informed in advance; the possibility that the Russians may have alerted Syria of the incoming attacks was deemed in Washington as less significant than the danger of accidentally killing any Russian soldiers.

The private military back-channels between Russia and the US have therefore worked as intended.

The fact that the strikes took place without a UN Security Council authority may be troubling to some governments, but was largely received with satisfaction by America’s allies in both Europe and the Middle East as a blunt message to Russia that Washington will not always sit idly by while Moscow paralyses international action.

The Trump administration has been beset by setbacks in its efforts to push its domestic agenda, and many observers doubted that the new president, focused as he is on his “America first” agenda, would intervene in a big way in a foreign conflict.

But Mr Tillerson, in briefing reporters after the missile attack, made clear that one reason for the intervention was Russia’s failure to rein in its Syrian client state.

“Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent,” he said, referring to Moscow’s apparent inability to prevent the Assad regime from using chemical weapons despite the 2013 agreement.

The US action was also a subtle reminder to Chinese President Xi Jinping who was the guest of President Trump while the Syrian missile strikes unfolded that the current US administration is prepared to bare its teeth. 

Overzealous Chinese commentators who have now taken to dismissing the US as a “spent force” should take notice of the fact, at the flick of a finger the American president was able to authorise the sort of missile strike other nations need months to prepare. 

This was a reminder of raw US military power, which remains undiminished. And of an administration which is prepared to use it.