This week’s joint US, UK, French aerial attack on Syria may not change the course of the civil war in Syria—The government of Bashar al-Assad seems still on course to prevail over its internal enemies, but it has changed calculations on power relationships in the Middle East and beyond.
Here’s a quick scorecard:
Trump: A victory for Trump on two levels. Inside the United States, he appears, for once, a leader in charge of a team given to thought-out, limited use of power that runs counter to his self-created image as Mr. Tough Guy. That may briefly overcome his other negative reputations, though given the short attention span of Americans, not for long.
Outside the US, it also makes Trump, suddenly, Leader of the Free World ™. It has long been assumed that allies, wary of his off-the-cuff, profane style, would not want to follow his lead militarily. Yet here they are, the UK and France and, verbally all of NATO as well as Japan, following his lead, on moral grounds usually associated with some of his predecessors—the need to protect Syrians on humanitarian grounds, in line with long standing prohibitions of chemical weapons. Who woulda guessed it? And how long will it last?
Trump seems to be shedding suspicions of being a lap-dog-for-Putin. It should be noted that the Russians are not only miffed at him about the US-led bombing, but also the presence of US troops he has sent inside Syria. The Russians think the US is trying to block Russia from managing an end to the civil war on its terms, and they may be right. Not clear if Trump and his team have such a strategy—news from Washington seems more centered on the Playboy Bunny and Porn Star aspects of Trump’s past than geopolitical concerns of the present, but maybe we’ll find out something soon.
May: Teresa May has been trying to look Margaret Thatcher-like for a long time. It’s not clear she has found her moment after this bombing, but in the Syria case, at least she looks decisive,. Certainly she appears stronger than her Labour Party opposite number, the mealy-mouthed Jeremy Corbin. I don’t think the assault on Syria resolves May’s failings as a political leader– only a successful Brexit negotiation can do that. And Brexit is far more important to Brits than anything going on in Syria.
Macron: Francois Macron is having to deal with tons of opposition to his economic plans in France, what with unions going on strike as often as possible. The Syria bombing lets him play the role he likes best, Napoleon of the moment. Won’t change much for him at home, but compared to the rest of leaders in continental Europe, he currently looks like a giant.
Putin: One of the things Russians like about Vladimir Putin is that he has tried to restore Russia’s sense of centrality ad grandeur on the word stage. Like Trump, he presents himself as a muscular Gospodin Tough Guy. Inability to scare Trump off from Syria cuts him a bit down to size. Also, the US’ latest round of sanctions on Putin’s buddies and their businesses may make Kremlin oligarchs nervous about the price they pay for Putin’s reputation as a cruel ex-spy given over to brazen attacks on individual enemies—the latest, the alleged Kremlin role in the nerve gas poisoning of an ex-Russian agent and his daughter in England.
Still, it’s all unlikely to loosen his grip on power. Undoubtedly Putin is trying to figure out whether he will need to deal with Trump and Israel in making a success of his entry into the Syrian civil war.
Netanyahu: Within the space of a few weeks, a kind of division of labor has emerged between the US and Israel. Israel has said it will not permit Iran a permanent military presence in Syria and has bombed bases in Syria where Iranians are present to prove it, including this week.
The US, on the other hand, has limited its attacks on Syrian bases, but none with Iranians (or Russians) present. Trump has bombed in recent months not only as a result of the chemical weapons affair, but any time the Syrians try to approach the presence of US troops based in remote desert areas. The US action may be a one-off, event but not so Israel’s. Netanyahu considers the presence of militias beholden to Iran as well as Tehran’s own forces closing in on Israel’s border an existential threat.
Iran: The Iranians may have thought that concluding a nuclear weapons deal with Barack Obama gave them a free hand to carry out their other foreign policy objectives, which includes defending at all costs its Syrian client, Bashar al-Assad. The nuclear deal forestalled threats against Iran’s nucler infrastructure from Israel and the US.
Israel’s action in Syria, combined with the US dabbling, upends that assumption. Iran does not, in fact, have a free hand in Syria. Moreover, Trump is scheduled to revisit US judgment on the nuclear deal next month. If he pulls out, Iran would be put in the precarious position it was in prior to its deal with Obama: facing an Israel bent on stopping the supposed nuclear program, plus a US-Israel led effort to undermine Assad and reverse Iranian influence in the Levant.