The American bombing was a penalty measure, not part of a strategic move. The Trump administration has no strategy, neither in Syria nor elsewhere in the world. Its strategy is a lack of strategy.
Trump has been tweeting about the civil war in Syria since its very beginning, in 2011. Most of the tweets have expressed a strong objection to an American intervention in the war. The most significant tweet was written on June 2013, after the previous chemical attack, which was much more extensive, against civilians in the rebel areas. “We should stay the hell out of Syria,” Trump tweeted. “The ‘rebels’ are just as bad as the current regime. What will we get for our lives and billions? Zero.”
According to reports published by the American media over the weekend, Trump changed his mind after seeing the images of the children who were killed in Idlib. “Beautiful babies” was the term he used. The term was problematic, but his shock was genuine.
There was another motive here, which is as significant. From his very first day at the White House, Trump has been consistently driven by one goal: To be the opposite of former US President Barack Obama—in terms of health insurance, the environment, the selection of cabinet members and the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court; in terms of his fling with Saudi Arabia, a regime Obama despised, and with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Netanyahu government, whose policy in the territories Obama publicly denounced. It seems that there has never been an American president who is so busy shaking off the actions, failures—and even the image—of his predecessor.
Obama pledged to take military action against the Assad regime if and when it used chemical weapons. When Assad ignored him and began bombing, Obama was deterred and settled for a Russian promise to remove all the chemical arsenal from Syria. Obama backtracked, and Putin rushed to take his place. The decision-making center in the Middle East shifted from Washington to Moscow.
Trump bombed Syria because Obama didn’t. On the way, he distanced himself from the reports about secret ties between his people and Putin’s people. The spat with Putin will make the FBI investigation into those ties seem irrelevant. It’s good for Trump, and it might even be good for Putin.
Naturally, military action of this sort raises expectations. What remains of the Syrian opposition is now expecting a direct American intervention in the war. The Saudis and their Sunni allies are expecting the same. The Israeli government is expecting Trump to take aggressive measures against Iran. If chemical weapons justify the firing of Tomahawk missiles, why should nuclear weapons be deprived?
It may happen and it may not. Trump said last week that he was a very “flexible” person. Indeed, he has been revealed as a remarkably flexible leader, a real contortionist.
For better or for worse, Trump is bringing the world’s leaders to a period of uncertainly. For better, because it increases America’s leeway. There is no leader who can now afford to treat America’s moves as expected and obvious. In Beijing, Moscow, Berlin, Tehran and the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, governments are racking their brains in a bid to try to understand Trump and deal with him. For worse, for the exact same reason: A world living in a state of uncertainty is a more dangerous, more conflicted and less stable world. Trump is playing with fire.
(Translated and edited by Sandy Livak-Furmanski)