It was totally expected that most Arab Gulf states, as well as the other Arab states, would express their full support for the US Tomahawk strike that targeted hangars, aircraft and fuel depots at the Shayrat military airfield near the Syrian city of Homs. However, equally significant was the widespread public approval of the Syrian strike by the Arabs. BBC News observed that Arab commentators on social media were showering US President Donald Trump with fulsome praise after he ordered the first direct US military action against Syrian government forces.
On the day of the military strike, I also ran a virtual poll on Twitter where I asked my 112,000 followers if they thought the US strike against the Syrian regime was justified. More than 2,000 followers — mostly from the Arab Gulf and the wider Arab world — participated in the online survey. Surprisingly, an overwhelming majority (80 per cent) expressed unconditional approval for US military action and even said they want to see more action. They also called on the US president to keep going and “hit [Al] Assad hard”. Only a small minority (20 per cent) were critical of Trump’s move and questioned the motives behind it.
There are a number of reasons why the American strike resonated well with Arabs, eliciting rare public approval and praise. Firstly, the majority probably saw the air strike as a justified retaliation for Syria’s ‘dead babies’. Images of Syrian children lying on the ground, foaming at mouth, their lips going blue as they fell in and out of consciousness, pointed to a heinous crime deserving of harsh punishment. Sadly, former US president Barack Obama had previously turned his back on Syrians but not so with Trump.
Many Arabs support military retaliation because it probably falls in the category of a just war, which means having a just cause, in addition to the action being a last resort, possessing the right intentions, having a reasonable chance of success, and the end being proportional to the means used.
The military operation was timely, limited and morally palatable. It got the full support and approval of Arab governments and the Arab public alike. The approval is a show of sympathy for the Syrian people more than for the military action.
Secondly, the wide Arab public approval for the military action is a strong vote against the bloody regime of Bashar Al Assad. People in the region feel guilty and mightily angry, but mostly impotent, in addition to not knowing what to stop Al Assad’s crimes and the repeated gassing of his own people. They certainly had had enough of his daily atrocities but felt totally helpless to do anything about it.
The strike was a huge relief that finally someone — in this case America and astonishingly, President Trump — had gathered the moral and political courage to stand up to Al Assad. America did what it was incapable of doing earlier to avenge the Syrian people and to tell Al Assad to his face that he cannot get away with crimes committed against civilians.Of course, the limited military strike will not stop the six-year-old war in Syria but for the first time in six years, Al Assad’s regime has been held accountable for some of its crimes. Many Arabs were simply grateful to America.
Thirdly, the incredible figure of 80 per cent of those supporting American military action (on my social media feed) is also reflective of the Arab message to America to stand firm and keep the pressure on Al Assad. There is a need for more targeted sanctions, in addition to keeping track of Al Assad’s war crimes, creating an international tribunal to hold him and his regime accountable, and to do more to pressure Al Assad’s main allies — Russia and Iran.
No one can do these things better and on behalf of the international community than Washington. The Arab world is only asking America to be on the right side of justice, at least for the time being. America has been on the wrong side of justice on so many issues here but this is a chance for them to make amends. In many ways the Arab public is expressing a deep desire to see more American involvement in the Syrian war. They want an end to the six years of policy inaction by the Obama administration. Obama’s dithering approach is viewed as contributing to the large scale massacres in Syria. He certainly saw Russia, Iran and the various militias ganging up on the Syrian people but chose to turn his back to walk away
A credible America is badly needed in Syria to restore the power balance and eventually help end the Syrian tragedy. Many know this is probably asking for too much, but the strong approval should be seen as a vote for America not to walk away from the region.Syria needs more, not less of America. The chaotic Middle East region needs more, not less of America.
Finally, some of the 80 per cent who approved of the US missile strike are grateful to President Trump personally. They are impressed by his decisiveness and salute his moral and political courage. The unpredictable Trump can be, after all, unpredictable in a good way. If he can restore even a modicum amount of confidence in American leadership, then so be it.
If he can make America look more credible and deliver on its ‘red line’ threat, this is good for America that has been falling short on credibility in recent times, in addition to being good for its regional allies who yearn for a dose of American leadership. It could also be good for global politics that has lost its direction lately.
Of course, the temperamental Trump has a long way to go before he can win the hearts and minds of the Arab public. And of course one isolated military action — no matter how justified — is not going to fully restore American leadership or bring back lost trust or even mend its lost credibility.
But for now, the Arab public and most Arab governments are all praise and in full support of the missile strike against the cruel Al Assad regime.
Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla is professor of Political Science and a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Abdulkhaleq_UAE.