A few days ago, the foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, the so-called G7 powers, gathered in the Tuscan city of Lucca in Italy and agreed to send Russia a “clear and coordinated message” over its stance on Syria. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who visited Moscow yesterday, was presumably empowered to inform his Russian counterpart that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad was now “toxic” material, something that both the affable Sergei Lavrov and his master, President Vladimir Putin, rejected. In the words of British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, it was “time for Vladimir Putin to face the truth about the tyrant he is propping up”.
On Day 78 of his presidency, and following the April 4 reported use of chemical weapons in Khan Shaikhoun — in Syria’s Idlib Governorate, where at least 70 civilians were killed and over 200 seriously injured — President Donald Trump authorised cruise missile attacks on a Syrian airfield, essentially to punish Damascus and, supposedly, warn Moscow. Trump spoke of being affected by the violent deaths imposed on civilians, including, “beautiful babies [who] were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror”, he affirmed, apparently to justify his decision.
At this juncture, it is fair to ask whether the actual damage caused to Syria’s surviving chemical weapons will now force major powers to take their responsibilities seriously. Likewise, it is imperative to know whether Washington and Moscow were insincere when they forced Damascus to surrender its chemical weapons stockpile to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) back in 2013.
Lest we forget, and after a UN team found “clear and convincing evidence” that sarin was used “on a relatively large scale” in the Ghouta area of the Syrian capital in August 2013, the Obama administration — which drew another one of its ephemeral ‘red lines’ before it promised to resort to military action — agreed with Russia to make a deal with Al Assad. It was a simple bargain: Damascus would give up control of its chemical weapons and Obama would walk away.
At the time, Moscow was perceived to have achieved a rare diplomatic breakthrough, and Obama’s National Security Council adviser, Susan Rice, patted herself on the back when she declared that the US was “able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile”. Regrettably, last week’s developments illustrated that the OCPW activities were little more than a band aid fix, with yet to be unearthed “deals” made behind the scenes.
As Washington ratchets up the pressure and Trump endears himself to those who just a few weeks ago perceived him as little more than an incompetent and evil man who could not possibly be trusted with the authority to start another war, it may be useful to know whether new deals are in the works despite President Putin’s disappointment. His spokesman called the attack on the airbase a “significant blow” to US-Russian ties, suspended various cooperation agreements, and otherwise voiced its displeasure that its sole surviving Arab ally was targeted, but in geopolitical terms, few anticipated dramatic shifts.
So as not to bury our collective heads in the sand, and while there are serious consequences at play here, we should note that no ideological differences exist between the world’s leading powers. In fact, they all agree on a common foe, Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), while they merely disagree on geopolitical goals.
Trump will now show that he will not kowtow to Putin, in part to silence his many critics, but also because going to war is easy, and even patriotic. Media jingoism will further embolden him as the septuagenarian head-of-state will cherish his new popularity with challenged commentators like Fareed Zakaria, who tweeted on April 7 that Trump “became President of the United States” after the bombings, or Brian Williams on the same date on MSNBC referred to the Pentagon videos showing the missile launches as “beautiful”, rush to praise him.
War is easy, but what is hard is to find diplomatic solutions that will end mayhem and if either Washington or Moscow were sincere about ending the conflict in Syria on humanitarian grounds, they would, for starters, mimic Germany and welcome a million Syrian refugees each.
Honesty requires that commentators retain some objectivity and to call a spade a spade. The latest attacks on Syria were not meant to send a “clear message” to Russia, but an example of a classic deal between two major players on the international checkerboard. Both Trump and Putin are staging their credibility vis-a-vis their own respective societies and, perhaps, towards each other. They both need, and aspire, to look strong. To no one’s surprise, they will both engage in pinprick activities for years and decades to come, as many continue to perish.
Dr Joseph Kechichian is the author of the just published The Attempt to Uproot Sunni Arab Influence: A Geo-Strategic Analysis of the Western, Israeli and Iranian Quest for Domination (Sussex: 2017).