As the Donald Trump presidency flounders towards its 100-day mark, it may perhaps have bequeathed two enduring lessons. Being “presidential” in the US is, in small part, about reading a speech off a teleprompter, though in much greater part, it is about bombing a foreign nation.
First reports were just coming in of a US missile strike on a Syrian airbase suspected of harbouring a chemical arsenal. Those few glimmers were sufficient for Beltway pundit and Trump-sceptic Fareed Zakaria to conclude in breathless ardour that they “made Donald Trump the President of the United States”.
A similar epiphany had dawned on a still more implacable critic, Van Jones, after Trump’s late-February speech to the US Congress. Seemingly swept up in the euphoria of a coherent speech rather than the usual solipsistic word salad, Jones pronounced the moment as one of a true presidential awakening.
That aura quickly wore off, as Trump sank into a quagmire of policy incoherence and paranoia. How far the Syria adventure will take him remains to be seen. He has for the moment capitalised on a political mood where the briefest deliberative pause would be frowned upon, even in compellingly complex situations.
After the brief macho strut came the effort to render a coherent narrative. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson vowed that the US was committed to allowing the Syrian people an absolutely free choice about the Bashar al-Assad regime. But UN ambassador Nikki Haley, already well past that pretence of modesty, ruled out the slightest possibility of peace in Syria, and indeed the region, as long as Assad remained in power.
Sean Spicer, spokesman for the White House, further confounded the situation with what was perhaps an unwitting admission of intent. The US goal was twofold, he said, of which the first was to “destabilise Syria”. Even as his eyes betrayed a panic attack at the misplaced candour, Spicer tried desperately but in vain, to walk it back. The intent, he said, was to “destabilise the conflict there (and) reduce the threat of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also referred to as IS)”.
It was just at the end of March that Tillerson had jointly with his Turkish counterpart, explicitly taken regime change in Syria off the urgent list of US priorities. Turkey, which had been among the most belligerent backers of anti-Assad forces in Syria, had formally called off its “Euphrates Shield” operations, launched in August with objectives partly congruent with the US and partly with Russia.
Where Turkey concurred with the US and Russia was in ousting the IS from the redoubts it had secured. Where it differed was in actively preventing any territorial gains by Syria’s Kurdish rebels, who were otherwise a favoured US ally. A third and unstated objective was to keep the powerful Turkish military engaged and to focus minds elsewhere, after July’s disastrous coup attempt which President Recep Tayyib Erdogan blames on an Islamist leader living in US exile.
Turkey did not get Russia to sign up for the regime change plan in Syria, but that was seemingly a necessary compromise. With that rare moment of concurrence between powerful external actors, the diplomatic turnaround for Assad was evident by March. And it came in the wake of substantive strategic gains, with the eastern quarter of the city of Aleppo, once a rebel stronghold, falling to a joint operation with Russia in December.
For Assad to throw away these gains in the barbaric chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province would be an act of illogic. Russia has insisted that the Assad regime is not responsible and that available forensic evidence, comprising in the main amateur video and scraps collected by activist groups, provides no basis for any firm attribution. The US has not paused to engage in that conversation.
The only possible motive that Assad may have for escalating the conflict, would be a loss of strategic positions in Idlib and Hama provinces. And that points to an inconsistency at the heart of US policy. Since the regime’s territorial gains in December, US-backed rebels in overt alliance with the IS, have secured rapid advances in Hama and Idlib. This may have prompted a panic reaction from Assad, by now confident that the Russians are too deeply committed to abandon him, whatever the provocation.
Every seeming turn for the better in Syria is quickly followed by a devastating show of bad faith. And the number of players with the power to sabotage any hint of progress is large and growing. In October, a truce was agreed with the US and Russia as guarantors and a protocol worked out for reaching humanitarian aid to besieged Aleppo. The spirit of concord lasted precisely as long as it took for an aid convoy to reach within a few kilometres of Aleppo, where it was bombed to cinders.
The US blamed Assad and, in seeming retaliation, bombed Syrian army positions in what it later put down to a targeting error. Russia was enraged and called for a UN investigation, which never got off the ground.
Since its missile strikes, the US has escalated the rhetoric and accused Russia of not merely covering up the chemical weapons assault, but active abetment. In this welter of conflicting claims, the only inference that stands is of bad faith on all sides. Three Geneva communiqués and one bearing the Vienna date-stamp bear testimony to the futility of seeking a way through the persistence of ill-intent.
Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in Delhi NCR