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Trump Might Be Seen To Have "Done Something" For Syria, But He Has Done Nothing For The Syrian People

07/04/2017 17:00
Carlos Barria / Reuters

Many have welcomed the US airstrikes against Syria, with some compelled to express a new found admiration for President Trump. While the suffering of the Syrian people naturally inspires sympathy and a desire to see "something" done, these airstrikes will actually do little to positively influence the situation on the ground, and shouldn't prompt a reappraisal of Trump's character.

Since 2011 the Assad regime has demonstrated its contempt for international law, human rights and global public opinion. In his desperate bid to survive, Assad has repeatedly plumbed new depths of depravity and unleashed horrific suffering against the people he claims to serve. Few can, in good conscience, defend his behaviour.

Yet, while Assad's crimes are well known and widely reviled, blame for the degeneration of the situation in Syria cannot be levelled at him alone. Russia's support has clearly been essential to Assad's survival, but the external factors that have enabled the situation to reach this point also includes those states that have irresponsibly encouraged the anti-Assad forces, while repeatedly failing to actively support them. The latest US airstrikes constitute more of the same.

From the beginning, the strategy of the rebels in Syria was influenced by the mistaken belief that Western states would intervene on their behalf. This was not illogical; the intervention in Libya in March 2011 was justified by various Western leaders on the basis that they could not "stand by" while a government massacred pro-democracy protestors. Unsurprisingly, many in Syria took this commitment at face value; in the wake of the Libyan intervention the aims of the anti-Assad protestors shifted from reform to regime change through military insurgency.

Initially Western states expressed their support for the anti-Assad forces, dismissed multi-lateral efforts, and repeatedly signalled their commitment to facilitating the removal of Assad. Central to the West's narrative was the possibility of future military intervention; promises that "all options are on the table" and Obama's now infamous "red lines", naturally encouraged those who believed the West would come to their rescue, to continue their ill-fated armed struggle. This proved to be a horrifically costly miscalculation.

In the wake of yesterday's airstrikes, this belief has been reborn; expressing his delight at the strikes, Ahmad Ramadan, spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, declared "We hope for more strikes...that these are just the beginning." Sadly, the evidence suggests that these hopes will be dashed.

To assess whether these strikes are "just the beginning" and signal a meaningful shift in US foreign policy towards Syria, we must look at the broader context. While Trump declared that the images of "beautiful babies" killed by toxic gas in Khan Sheikhun, Idlib on Tuesday prompted him to act, it is difficult to reconcile this compassion with Trump's record of active hostility towards the protection and promotion of human rights, and overt disdain for pursuing any foreign policy not directly in the US narrow national interests.

More broadly, US policy towards the Middle East has for decades been characterised by a willingness to support regimes guilty of the most heinous human rights violations. In recent years, the US has steadfastly supported the government of Bahrain despite its brutal suppression of domestic dissent, while also supplying arms to support the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen. In short, a great many "beautiful babies" have been killed by the US's closest allies; Trump's new found altruism is simply not credible.

Additionally, the nature of the strikes themselves don't inspire much confidence. Bombing one airstrip - after first warning those stationed there - is hardly a robust show of force. Such meek tokenism, will clearly not in itself compel Assad or Russia to change their tactics; if anything it highlights the very limited extent to which Trump is willing to militarily commit to the conflict.

These airstrikes are, therefore, impelled much more by self-interest than by compassion or a commitment to support the anti-Assad forces. Rather than being prompted by the deaths of "beautiful babies", the airstrikes more likely constitute an attempt by Trump to bolster his own image; they enable Trump to present himself as more forceful than his predecessor, and can be used to counter the narrative that he is in Putin's pocket. Additionally, the highly circumscribed nature of these airstrikes should temper their perceived importance. While "something" has now been done, in the long term these strikes will most likely have a negative impact on both the prospects of peace in Syria, and the fate of those seeking the overthrow of Assad, who have once again been given false hope.

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