Zig-Zagging on Syria Trump's Foreign Policy Game

It could turn out that Donald Trump's decision to bomb Syria was the right one. But thus far, he has no clear policy and there are several risks to his approach. One of them is the president himself.

U.S. President Donald Trump

U.S. President Donald Trump

A Commentary by

For almost six years, the U.S. under the leadership of Barack Obama stood by helplessly as Syrian President Bashar Assad slaughtered his people, with the blessing of both Moscow and Tehran. For six years, efforts were made to find a diplomatic solution to the Assad problem. But nothing worked, because Russian President Vladimir Putin was uninterested in abandoning his most important ally in the Middle East.

Now, U.S. President Donald Trump is returning to standard American practice: Instead of relying on words, he is resorting to bombs - in this case, Tomahawk missiles - and has punished Assad for the chemical weapons attack for which the dictator is likely to blame.

The new American severity results from the assumption that the Russians and Iranians can only be forced into concessions if the West demonstrates that it isn't "weak" and that it can strike with just as much brutality as they can - and that it is prepared for an escalation of the Syrian conflict.

Considering the situation, it is certainly reasonable to conclude that, since the softer approach yielded no benefits, it is perhaps worthwhile trying a more heavy-handed strategy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande apparently agree, which is why they released a statement on Friday accepting the U.S. strikes.

Photo Gallery

10  Photos
Photo Gallery: A Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

If things go well, Assad, Russia and Iran will be cowed by Trump's response and will agree to a negotiated solution that results in the end of the Assad regime. In such a scenario, it could prove helpful that Putin initially saw Trump's presidency as a possibility to improve relations with Washington and to end painful sanctions. Europe's moderating influence, particularly from Merkel, could help push things in this direction.

A Good Hand to Play

If things don't go well, Assad, Putin and the Iranians will redouble their stubbornness. They certainly don't want to give the impression of weakness in the face of Trump's onslaught. It is thus possible that they will simply allow things to continue as before. They might even seek to test Trump to see how far he is willing to go - by, for example, making new weapons deliveries to Assad or increasing the number of "military advisers" in the country.

Putin still has a good hand to play. He has plenty of ways to make things difficult for Trump and the West, by reheating the frozen Ukraine conflict and opening a new theater of operations, for example. Iran, meanwhile, could easily employ targeted provocations to escalate the never-ending conflict with Saudi Arabia. Trump would suddenly find himself confronted with several new areas of conflict to which he would have to formulate a response.

Whatever happens, it would be more comforting if there were a different U.S. president sitting in the Oval Office. Unfortunately, though, it is Donald Trump, and he hasn't thus far given any indication that he is able to develop an intelligent, coherent and rigorous strategy. Experience shows that cool calculation is not one of his strengths. Rather, he is more influenced by mood and instinct - and by his overwhelming need to be popular.

His zig-zag path in Syria is a perfect example. Just a few days ago, the U.S. government essentially agreed that Assad could stay in power, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying it was up to the Syrian people to decide and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley saying "our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out."

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Trump gave the impression that ethics and human rights were not considerations for his administration. Now, though, he suddenly wants to be seen as a knight in shining armor - with the added benefits that the strikes distract from his domestic policy failures and from accusations that his administration is too cozy with Moscow. It could be that his popularity ratings will temporarily rise. But confidence in his ability to manage such a crisis remains at a premium.

Under Trump, American foreign policy seems like a mere game. Unfortunately, it is deadly serious for the rest of us.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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JeffPage 04/07/2017
1. Trump's Foreign Policy?
By striking at Assad's regime Trump hasn't exactly changed his Foreign Policy. He has taken a decision that should have been taken years ago and by far more Western leaders. If the war could have been stopped earlier, then there wouldn't be the problems with refugees fleeing Syria! All the media numpties start making accusations almost as if they supported what Assad is doing along with aid from Russia. At least Trump has made them stop and think, which some European leaders ought to begin doing! The West has stood back and watched the mayhem and the resulting refugee crisis, as soon as Trump takes action he is all over the news and the critics come out in their droves. As far as I and a lot of people are concerned, he has done the right thing. And to Western leaders doing the criticising, "Stuff You, At Least Trump Is Acting and Not Cowering In a Corner"!
roscoe2 04/07/2017
2. Not our fight!
The attack by the USA on Syria may have been well meant but was not our battle to fight. President Trump has repeatedly said that he would not attack Syria without the approval of Congress; he has now done just the opposite. While it is horrible that Assad is killing children, yesterdays attack upon Syria should have been carried out by other Arab states and not the USA. After all, Assad - as bad as he may be - is killing ISIS! It seems that the President has forgotten the old adage" "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." The USA does not need another engagement in the Middle East or any where else in the world. We need to let the rest of the world fight their own battles. That little attack on the Syrian airfield probably cost the US a half billion dollars, and what did we gain?
michael_ah_oleary 04/07/2017
3. Syria
I dare say that Mr Assad will have second thoughts about using chemical weapons a second time or third time. 59 cruise missiles raining down on an airport might focus the Syrian leader's attention a lot better than a speech at the Security Council.
nsmith 04/11/2017
Just for the record. This airstrike was planned. The Russians knew about it in advance and were warned to stay away, and not one Syrian plane sustained damage. In fact, the Syrian Air Force was up and running the next day....So much for Trump's "decision" to engage in an airstrike. But then, who would expect anything more from a "smoke-and-mirrors" president, where the only thing that matters is good ratings. Donald Trump still has no plan for his next act -- and he also hasn't realized this isn't a Reality-Show. It's the real thing.
turnipseed 04/13/2017
5. The words of Donald Trump
Many of us Americans always knew that Donald Trump spoke nonsense. More and more of us are coming to that conclusion as well. Nothing he says on Monday will be repeated on Friday, it will be countered with the opposite. You cannot trust him on Syria or Russia or on anything else. All he is committed to is the defense of his fragile and deranged ego and the search for wealth which brings power. He knows nothing else, believes nothing else, seeks nothing. He is really an idiot. But a clever one. And a dangerous one. He reminds me not of Hitler but of Mussolini.
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