I will do such things,—
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
King Lear, Act II, Scene 4
There are occasions when only Shakespeare will do, and Donald Trump was really, really cross.
There’s still no proof that the Assad regime was responsible for the poison gas attack that killed, according to various reports, 40 or 75 or even more people in the besieged Syrian town of Douma. Indeed, the Russians, Bashar al-Assad’s faithful ally, maintain that the attack did not even happen. Moscow suggests that the video footage was faked by the Islamist rebels, or perhaps taken from some previous occasion. There has been no proper investigation, although the Russians offered to escort a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to the site of the alleged attack as early as Tuesday. But Trump saw the footage on Fox News, and he was determined to punish the evil ones.
And he did act, although his actions were not exactly ‘the terrors of the Earth’. The missile strike, according to the US Defence Secretary General James Mattis involved “double” the number of missiles that were used in last year’s similar attack. So that’s around 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles, costing around $100 million, delivered on three or four targets that were almost certainly evacuated last weekend.
It was a big enough attack to re-arrange the landscape around the alleged “chemical weapons-type targets”, even if Syrian anti-aircraft fire shot down a few of the unmanned missiles (as the Syrians claim). Essentially, however, it was a pantomime event designed to impress a small and unsophisticated audience: Donald J. Trump.
It would appear that the grown-ups really are still in charge in the White House. They couldn’t actually disobey orders, but they could arrange things so that nobody got seriously hurt. They specifically chose targets that would “mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved,” and the Syrians obviously had time to get their people out of the likely targets too.
The US even warned the Russians to clear the airspace along the tracks the missiles would follow, so that there would be no accidental encounters with Russian (or Syrian) aircraft. “We used the normal deconfliction channel to deconflict airspace,” explained the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford. And the Russians obligingly turned off their air defences, since the Western attacks weren’t going to do any serious harm anyway.
President Trump did say: “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” but that is a perfectly meaningless commitment since Syria is not using them now. If it did use them last week, it has already stopped. As General Mattis said: “Right now, this is a one-time shot.” So move along, folks. Nothing more to see here. And spare us all the talk (most recently by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres) about a ‘new Cold War’. There can’t be a new Cold War, because the Russians don’t have the resources to hold up their end of it.
Moscow only commits its forces to areas that really threaten its security (or at least appeal to its own sometimes paranoid definition of what constitutes a security threat). Syria is quite close to Russia, whose own population is more than one-tenth Muslim, so Moscow was unwilling to let Islamist extremists win the Syrian civil war, and in September 2015 it intervened to stop them.
The Russia intervention in Syria has been almost entirely successful: Bashar al-Assad has won the war, and already controls all the big cities and most of the country’s ‘useful’ land. The Washington foreign policy establishment hates this outcome, but it never had a plausible alternative to peddle, nor (after Afghanistan and Iraq) was there the political will in the United States for a major military intervention in Syria.
The Syrian war will end in a year or two, and flea bites like this week’s air strikes will have no influence on the outcome. And Moscow will stop there: it has no further ambitions in the Middle East.