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Middle East

The repercussion of America bombarding Syria?




In Israel, most Israelis were pleased that US President Donald Trump had made good on his threats and hit Syria. But there was concern whether in the long run this would benefit Jerusalem.

First and foremost, the Arab world will always find it difficult to cheer Western airstrikes on a fellow country – this includes even the worst enemies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He used the strikes to his advantage, and his supporters condemned the West and, in particular, the US and Israel.

The trigger, of course, was the alleged gas attack carried out a week earlier in the opposition-held town of Douma near Damascus, killing about 40 people. The images, particularly of injured children, catapulted the world to respond – more specifically, the Americans, British and French.

The good news for Trump was that he could be seen to organise a coalition in a few days, and he came across as a man who delivered on his threats. But what was his message?

US Defence Secretary James Mattis insisted that the objective of Saturday’s strike was to deter al-Assad and impair his regime from using chemical weapons in future. But, as the Russians have repeatedly said, there is still no conclusive proof that al-Assad was responsible – and what would have been his motivation in carrying out such an attack?

The Syrian army is winning the war – it is the rebels who are on the defensive. It doesn’t make sense for the Syrian president to incur the wrath of the West. If anything, the rebel groups have more to gain by carrying out a chemical attack, bringing the West into the war.

The last time Trump authorised two American naval destroyers to hit a Syrian airbase, he was just 11 weeks into his presidency. According to Western intelligence, since then al-Assad has allegedly launched dozens of chlorine-gas attacks that Trump has ignored. So, why did he respond this time?

The subtext suggests that al-Assad can behave any way he wants until Trump deems it inappropriate. And what about Trump’s desire not to get embroiled in Syria? How does launching airstrikes and refusing to be around to clean up their mess, benefit anyone?

You can’t get involved and not involved at the same time – which is exactly Trump’s wish. He wants to retaliate against al-Assad and also find a way to withdraw.

The vacuum created by the imploded Syrian state is perfect fodder for terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda to flourish, and the latest American-led airstrikes add to their recruitment propaganda.

The glaring double standards employed by the West are too difficult to ignore. Trump, together with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May, talk about defending human rights, but do nothing to stop such abuses in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

The strike also does not significantly jeopardise the al-Assad regime’s survival. To do this, the American administration would need to provide aid to rebel groups, who are straining under Russian and Iranian pressure, and Trump has no desire to do this.

So, why did he do it? Consensus is that it was a challenge to Russia and a show of strength. The Kremlin views the strikes as an insult, especially as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin earlier urged Trump to avoid punitive measures.

Mattis stressed this was a “one-time shot” – was this to appease the Russians? And in appeasing the Russians, who are annoyed anyway, has Trump shown himself to be weak?

Some say Putin is embarrassed. He asked the Americans to do nothing and was ignored.

But many argue the opposite; that Trump’s actions showed him up to be weak. The Americans reportedly warned the Russians they would strike, and the Russians, in turn, told the Syrians, who left the base. No Russian targets and territory were attacked.

Trump can claim that the sites struck were centres of Syria’s chemical weapons programme, but it is far from clear if they were still central to the al-Assad regime’s chemical programme – and it is possible that activity there had already been halted.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said as much. He remarked that the strikes failed to accomplish their goals and were not made to be more expansive because the US, UK and France feared that a response from the Syrian regime and its backers could trigger a wider conflagration.

What does all this mean for Israel?

Some Israeli analysts suggest that Trump showed too much consideration for the Russians. By insisting on a precise strike and nothing more, he sent the message that Washington doesn’t really want to deal with Syria and Russia, which in turn shows Israel that she is alone.

Trump might say all the right stuff right now, but any future course of action will be based solely on American interests and concerns – and these include not getting embroiled in another war – rather than on coming to Israel’s defence if she needs it.

There are also concerns in Jerusalem that Russia won’t retaliate militarily to last weekend’s strikes, but instead, will look to punish America by harming her ally, Israel. The worry is that part of the Russian response, when it comes, will be to limit Jerusalem’s use of Syrian airspace (which the Russians control) to attack Iranian targets.

This is Israel’s main concern in Syria – Tehran’s growing military influence on the ground. The US-led strikes don’t alleviate these concerns.

For now, Tehran has condemned the attacks as “criminal” and “violating Syria’s sovereignty in… international law”, but has not said much more. No doubt it has held its response in check because next month Trump will decide on the future of the P5+ 1 nuclear deal between Tehran and the West, and the Iranians don’t want to jeopardise it.

It’s worth nothing, though, that after the strikes Putin spoke via telephone with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, after which the Kremlin said: “The leaders… agreed that this illegal action is adversely impacting prospects for political settlement in Syria… [and] chaos in international relations.”

It seems unlikely that America and Russia will go to war over Syria. But this chapter is far from over. Israel has every reason to be concerned.

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.

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