US President Donald Trump went into the US missile operation against Syrian chemical sites with Britain and France on April 14 with one hand tied behind his back – first by his own unrealistic decision to withdraw US troops from Syria “as soon as possible,” and second, by his ambivalence towards Russian President Vladimir Putin. He could have pulled US troops out of Syria by dashing off a presidential directive. He has not done so because he understands that it would sabotage any attempt at a coherent American policy for Syria. At the same time, continuing to articulate this goal causes his strategy to waver from one day to the next.
Trump originally ordered the missile strike in Syria to be “sustained,” until “Bashar al-Assad agreed not to use chemical weapons in the future.” But the operation was not sustained. Then, on April 16, French President Emmanuel Macron said that he thought “…he convinced the US president not to withdraw troops from Syria and instead commit for the long term.” That assertion was quickly slapped down by White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who said: “The US mission has not changed – the president has been clear that he wants US forces to come home as quickly as possible.”
Equally unrealistic is Trump’s push for an Arab coalition to take over the east of Euphrates region of Syria from the US contingent. His plan for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf nations to send their armies over quickly proved to be a non-starter. None of those Arab governments has any appetite for plunging into the Syrian war; they are short of the right kind of combatants and capabilities for the mission and, above all, they would insist on US staying on and providing the bulk of the coalition strength and military capabilities.
The Saudi foreign minister Adel Jubayr made a noncommittal offer, but Cairo was furious. “The Egyptian Armed Forces are not mercenaries and cannot be leased or ordered by foreign states to deploy in a certain area,” said Mohammad Rashad, Deputy Minister of Egyptian intelligence Thursday, April 19.
The lesson drawn from the US-led coalition set up in 2016-2017 to drive the Islamic State out of its Iraqi strongholds was that pro-Western Arab states fighting input exists mainly on paper. And now, even the Western coalition for demolishing Syria’s chemical weapons has lost a wing. British Prime Minister Theresa May is struggling at home to deny she acted on the orders of Donald Trump against a crippling attack on her political survival.
The US president is therefore back where he started before the Syrian missile operation.
To hang on to the American sphere of influence east of the Euphrates, Trump must not only continue to rely on the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Party’s YPG militia, he will have to deploy a fresh influx of US troops as back-up. The US ends up after the US-British-French missile strike in Syria in a fix not dissimilar to its situation in Afghanistan in recent years. Whenever a US president, like Trump, determined to pull US troops out of Afghanistan, he was obliged to pour in reinforcements to create the right conditions for the pullout. This is exactly the case in Syria.
Ultimately, the allied strike in Syria (See a separate article on its military gains) strengthened Bashar Assad and his regime, enhanced the Russian and Iranian roles in the country and tightened the Moscow-Tehran axis, whereas his alliance with the UK and France failed to provide the intended springboard for tackling Iran. (DEBKA Weekly 796: Can Trump Swing his Syrian Operation into a Crackdown on Iran?).
Gone too is the hoped-for fulcrum for cooperation with Moscow in securing Syria’s future. The prospects of working together have faded exponentially since the Trump-Putin understanding for Syria reached last July in Hamburg G-20. Buffeted by allegations from Washington of meddling in the US 2016 campaign, Putin is far from predisposed in favor of better relations. Instead, he is going full steam ahead to ramp up his ties with Tehran. US Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham did not mince his words on the outcome of the missile strike in Syria. He told reporters on Wednesday that he thinks the administration is “going down a dangerous path” with regard to Syria. Talking to reporters, he complained that the administration has no military strategy to counter Iranian and Russian influence and seems willing “to give Syria to Assad, Russia and Iran.” The dark outlook for productive big power steps in the Middle East is also bad news for Trump’s forthcoming summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It leaves him short of leverage for dealing with the rogue leader.