Donald Trump’s retaliatory strikes following Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons in the Syrian war has essentially put an end to the longstanding attempts of his predecessor to keep the United States out of another war in the Middle East. Although the strikes were aimed at sending a clear message that the use of chemical weapons crossed the line, they have also changed the dynamics of the conflict, risking that US intervention could play out in many dangerous ways.
The White House said that there would be no more immediate measures. However, observers think that once the US gets involved in a military conflict of any sort, it finds it hard to tame its ambitions. In other words, the Syrian war has once again become a complex and internationalized civil war. The addition of another global player, greater and more lethal weapons, and the possibility of a greater US-Russia standoff, makes for a combustible mix.
Moreover, the new US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, hinted that the administration would be interested in a regime change, thus essentially putting a serious hurdle on the path towards a fast and easy political solution. Although the White House officially still supports the political track, the process is at a dead-end given Assad’s position on the ground, something that Washington is not yet willing to challenge militarily.
Donald Trump will need to hold back a bit and convey a clear message that the U.S. would not take this one-off action any further and that it would support the existing political track. However, he will also likely face considerable pressure to deliver regime change, an outcome to which the credibility of his cabinet depends on. Moreover, given his desire to differentiate himself from Barack Obama, he might find it very hard to deescalate US involvement in the conflict.
The possibility of a wider dangerous confrontation is becoming more real as Moscow is already cutting off military de-confliction channels with the US over Syria in a way that could also complicate Western efforts against the ISIS. While the flagrant use of chemical arsenal necessitated a response, the US is now in an urgent need of a viable broader strategy unless it wants to be slowly pulled into another regional war.
‘Trump and Syria: The Entanglement Begins’ – Commentary by Julien Barnes-Dacey – European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
(The Commentary can be downloaded here)