What do the American missile strikes on Syria mean for the Middle East, Europe and the world? ….explores Ian Bond of Centre for European Reform
US President Donald Trump launched cruise missile strikes on a Syrian airbase last night, after the Syrian air force dropped chemical weapons on the town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4th. In a statement, Trump said that the strikes reflected America’s interest in stopping the spread and use of chemical weapons; and responded to the threat to the US and its allies from the refugee crisis and instability in the Middle East.
In 2013, then-president Barack Obama drew a red line over the use of chemical weapons, but failed to enforce it. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might previously have thought that the Trump administration was also giving him a free hand: US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on March 30th that America’s priority was no longer getting Assad out. Trump has now drawn Obama’s red line more firmly.
The immediate military consequences of the American strikes will be limited: Syria has plenty of other airbases and weapons systems it can use against its enemies. The political implications may be greater. Russia, Iran and Turkey had been working on a peace process without US involvement. Turkey had dropped its demand that Assad give up power. Ankara has now backed the US approach, however, while Iran and Russia have condemned the missile strikes. Given that split, it is hard to see their peace efforts getting much further.
Even before yesterday’s events, the Russian authorities were lowering their expectations of a thaw in relations with the US: allegations about ties between Trump advisers and Russian interests had limited Trump’s room for manoeuvre. Russia has now said that the strikes on Syria have seriously damaged US-Russian relations. The risk of Russia causing trouble for America elsewhere (for instance, in Ukraine) may have risen.
The missile strikes on Syria may also be aimed at North Korea and indirectly at China (whose president, Xi Jinping, Trump meets today – April 07). North Korea is getting closer to having a nuclear weapon that could reach the US; the Trump administration may have wanted to warn Pyongyang that it is ready to use force to defend its vital interests, while encouraging Beijing to put pressure on its ally.
European reactions to the American strikes have been positive. But though the US informed some allies in advance, it did not ask them to take part (perhaps to avoid a repeat of 2013, when Obama chose not to go ahead with airstrikes after the House of Commons voted against UK involvement). This reinforces the sense that Trump does not value allies as much as previous presidents.
The US strikes last night expressed outrage at the use of chemical weapons, and Europeans have welcomed them in that light. But unless there is a strategy for achieving peace to back them up, Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies will be able to carry on killing people in other ways. Europeans may then worry that stepped-up military action will push more refugees out of Syria, at a time when the US is closing its doors to them.
(Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform. This article first appeared in the website of Centre for European Reforms – www.cer.org)