Sunday 21 January 2018

Trump's foreign policy doesn't look like it's fake news

Last week's Tomahawk missile attack on a Syria air base by the United States will be welcomed by stable governments everywhere as a return to a rules-based world order, after a period of inaction

US President Donald Trump Photo: AP Photo/Alex Brandon
US President Donald Trump Photo: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Josie Ensor

Residents of the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, which last week suffered one of the deadliest chemical attacks of the war, thought their nightmare was over.

But yesterday they discovered that President Bashar al-Assad was not finished with them yet.

Abdul-Hamid Alyousef, 29, holds his twin babies who were killed last Tuesday in a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun. Alyousef also lost his wife, two brothers, nephews and many other family members in the attack Photo: Alaa Alyousef via AP
Abdul-Hamid Alyousef, 29, holds his twin babies who were killed last Tuesday in a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun. Alyousef also lost his wife, two brothers, nephews and many other family members in the attack Photo: Alaa Alyousef via AP

Last Friday night and into yesterday morning, the northern rebel-held town was pummelled once again by Syrian war planes.

The Sukhoi jets took off from al-Shayrat airbase, which just hours earlier was hit by 59 American Tomahawk cruise missiles, making apparent the limited nature of US President Donald Trump's intervention.

Aya Fadl spent yesterday cowering in the basement of her home with her 20-month-old son Najdat. She said that the town had been hit "many times" by air strikes in the past 48 hours.

"Some landed very close to us, some far away," said Mrs Fadl, 25, who lost more than 20 members of her family in last week's attack and is still suffering from the effects of exposure to what is thought to be sarin gas.

An image provided by the US Navy of the USS Ross firing a Tomahawk missile on Friday Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert S. Price/U.S. Navy via AP
An image provided by the US Navy of the USS Ross firing a Tomahawk missile on Friday Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert S. Price/U.S. Navy via AP

"We're so scared, we don't know whether the next one will be full of chemicals or not so we don't leave the house."

She now sleeps in the same room as her husband Alaa and son so that in the eventuality their house gets hit at least they will be killed together. "I was born in Khan Sheikhoun, it is my home," she said. "But I feel I can't live here any more, that if I stay I will die."

Mr Trump had ordered the blistering attack on the base in response to the gassing which left 86 dead and hundreds injured, acting to enforce a "red line" set, and then ignored, by his predecessor Barack Obama.

"Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack," he said in an address announcing the news.

"It was a slow and brutal death for so many. No child of God should ever suffer such horror."

Mrs Fadl said when they heard the news of the US strike she was "happy", but "then we became worried as we knew Assad would look for revenge. Now it is like he is trying to kill everyone that survived the chemical attack," she said.

Monitors had reported that the airfield was badly destroyed by the 1,000lb warheads and that several planes and a runway had been put out of service.

However it is thought that an advance warning given by the US to Russia allowed Syria enough time to remove many of its aircraft before the raid.

Syria's second most-active air base appeared to be back up and running by last Friday afternoon.

"Although the strike will further weaken the overall air defence and ground attack capabilities of the Syrian air force it will not significantly diminish the ability of the Assad regime to conduct further chemical weapons attacks," said Reed Foster, analyst at the defence and intelligence publication Jane's.

Many in Khan Sheikhoun who spoke to journalists saw the strikes as a slap on the wrist of a dictator that has acted with impunity for years.

They say they wanted to see all of Syria's war planes grounded, not just punitive action against one air base.

"The American attack is a good step, but not enough," said Abdulhamid al-Youssef, who lost his wife, Dalal, and their nine-month-old twins.

"Now they have hit one airport. But the criminal Assad has more than 20 airports and bombing them is the primary sensible thing that they can do."

Mr Youssef, Mrs Fadl and others, worry that if something is not done soon the world will quickly move on, like it did the last time the regime gassed its people in 2013 in an attack that left more than 1,000 dead in the suburbs of Damascus.

"Where is the UN?" Mrs Fadl asked. "Where is the EU? He will do it again and again until someone stops him."

But that person may not be Donald Trump - if he elects to listen to dissenting voices among the supporters who brought him to the US presidency. Many fervent Trump supporters in America said they were dismayed by his decision to launch an air strike in Syria.

His white nationalist backers, the 'alt-right', as they are known, expressed alarm at the president's apparent disregard for his America First mantra.

Paul Joseph Watson, who writes for pro-Trump conspiracy theory blog Infowars, said he was "officially off the Trump train" and now supporting France's far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.

Richard Spencer, the white nationalist whose Heil Trump rally embarrassed the administration, called the strike "a sad, shocking and deeply frustrating moment".

Meanwhile, Nigel Farage said he was "very surprised" by Trump's actions. "I think a lot of Trump voters will be waking up this morning and scratching their heads and saying 'where will it all end?'" he said.

"As a firm Trump supporter, I say, yes, the pictures were horrible, but I'm surprised. Whatever Assad's sins, he is secular. Previous interventions in the Middle East have made things worse rather than better."

Rand Paul, the Republican senator for Kentucky, insisted Mr Trump should have sought approval from Congress.

Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton's running mate, agreed, saying he had voted for military action in 2013, but "the president should have come to Congress before doing this".

"He needs to come to Congress now to lay out his strategy for how we're going to deal with Syria, especially given the fact that there are so many US troops now on the ground there," he said.

But Mr Trump's actions won him praise from other top Republicans. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, announced "America is back", while John McCain, a Republican elder statesman, said it should reassure US allies - and frighten North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un.

"A lot of Arab countries are willing to be partners with us, as long as they can rely on us," he said.

World leaders also voiced their support for the strike. French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Russia and Iran needed to understand that supporting Bashar al-Assad made no sense, and that the escalation of the US military role in Syria was a "warning" to "a criminal regime".

Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel spoke by phone. Both issued statements saying Assad was solely to blame for the strike.

Turkey's deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus, said the international community should sustain its stance against the "barbarity" of the Syrian government. Syrians themselves had mixed reactions, with some hailing an end to Mr Assad's impunity while others said the air strike would achieve nothing.

Russia's response was less philosophical, more pragmatic. Moscow sent a warship armed with cruise missiles to join the Russian battlegroup off the coast of Syria. Russia's anger - a world away from hopes of a rapprochement voiced in Washington and Moscow after the Trump's election - have overshadowed US secretary of state Rex Tillerson's planned visit to Moscow. His anticipated meeting with Vladimir Putin will now be dedicated to reaching an understanding on Syria and addressing concerns over Russia's suspension of an agreement designed to keep the world's largest nuclear powers from accidentally clashing there.

The frigate Admiral Grigorovich reached the group of at least six warships off the coast of Syria. It carries Kalibr cruise missiles (the Russian equivalent to the Tomahawk missiles) and has previously fired them at targets in the war-torn country.

While many saw the US strikes as curtailing hopes for better ties between Putin and Trump, some Russians believe they were more posturing than precision warfare.

"There's a bad scenario with this flexing of muscles. The danger of a clash between the US and Russia in Syria is not pleasant, and it could have bad consequences," said Fyodor Lukyanov, a leading foreign policy analyst in Moscow.

"But there's also a positive scenario. For Trump, discussion with Russia about co-operation in Syria was impossible before because it was a discussion from a position of weakness. Now we can say that America has shown its abilities - it has returned to the picture, and the conversation won't be one-sided. Neither side will dominate, and this creates possibilities and preconditions for dialogue."

Putin's spokesman said that the Russian president viewed the strikes as "aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law, and under a false pretext", but the rebuke seemed a bit rote and lacking in vinegar.

Russians had been evacuated from the airbase after the US warned Russia about its attack. A Russian reporter on the ground posted photos afterwards showing the runway at Shayrat still intact, and Syrian jets have resumed flights from the base.

The Russian foreign ministry also cancelled a "deconfliction" agreement, designed to prevent mid-air collisions, under which the US and Russia informed each other about their military operations. Lt Gen Yevgeny Buzhinsky said its absence would raise the chances of an accident or strike escalating into a direct conflict.

The risk is compounded by the presence of a large number of Russian military advisers working outside its Khmeimim airbase and Tartus naval base in Syria.

In addition to deploying the frigate, the Russian defence ministry promised "measures to bolster and increase the effectiveness of the Syrian armed forces' air defence systems". Buzhinsky said Russian anti-aircraft units could start covering not only Russia's assets in Syria but also regime facilities. "I think if Americans decide to launch Tomahawks again, they could start destroying these Tomahawks," he said.

But Leonid Isayev, a Middle East analyst at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, cautioned that the Russians would stop short of giving the Syrians top equipment like S-400 anti-aircraft missiles.

"We're afraid to fully give weapons to Syria because we're afraid they will fall into hands of terrorists, so military escalation is not simple," he said.

Over recent days Moscow has appeared to struggle in covering for Syria's president al-Assad, who put Putin in an uncomfortable position by allegedly launching the chemical attack. In what seemed like a warning to Assad, Putin's spokesman said on Thursday that Moscow's support for the regime was "not unconditional."

The Tillerson visit allows the Trump administration and Putin to begin working out their own agreement on Syria.

Tensions with the US could also play into Putin's hands and allow him to rally Russians around the flag ahead of the presidential election next year.

"It depends on Trump. If he wants to make Syria another platform for military intervention, then we return to the model that was under Bush and Obama, only with a real risk of military conflict," Lukyanov said. "If not and the strikes were just about prestige, then there's no risk, and possibilities for agreement are preserved."

The danger is that the Trump administration still hasn't figured out its goals.

Lukyanov said the worst scenario "would be if it comes out that there are no concrete intentions besides being back in the game".

Meanwhile in Syria, many Assad supporters continued to deny the government's involvement in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, believing an air strike hit a rebel warehouse storing chemical agents. Yesterday they mocked America for what they said was a limited response.

"Let's be real here, Trump can't do much than that," said Ali Hamadan, who lives in the government-held city of Tartous. "He does a limited air strike, you cheer for him a little and that's it."

Promoted Links

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in World News