VIENNA – Last week’s chemical attack on the rebel-held Syrian city of Khan Sheikhoun compelled US President Donald Trump to strike for the first time at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. With the bombing of an air base in western Syria, the Trump administration stepped into a gaping power vacuum in the Middle East. But what, if anything, will Trump do next?
Coming after six years of civil war, in which some 400,000 civilians have been killed and millions displaced, Trump’s unexpected intervention was praised by most US politicians, though it was carried out without the requisite congressional approval. Syrian rebel groups and America’s international allies (including those at the just-concluded meeting of G7 foreign ministers in Italy) welcomed the United States’ attack on Syrian government forces.
With 59 Tomahawk missiles, Trump sent a message to the Assad regime and its patrons, especially Russia and Iran, that he, unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, is willing to enforce “red lines.” Unsurprisingly, Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin condemned the US attack, claiming that it violated international law – a questionable proposition, given that Syria is a signatory to the international treaty banning chemical weapons.
But whatever statement Trump’s decision made, it seems destined to be drowned out by his administration’s subsequent babble of strategic incoherence. While Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, has suggested that Assad’s ouster is now a priority, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insists that defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) still tops America’s agenda. Worse, Trump’s decision to take military action was reportedly influenced by his daughter, Ivanka, who claimed to be “heartbroken and outraged” by the images of the victims of the chemical attacks.