In 2003, George W. Bush in the company of Tony Blair, the then British Prime Minister, said there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Iraq is now a doomed country. Is it doomed because of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction? The whole world knows that it was just a bad name given in order to kill him. Now they say that they have evidence Assad’s forces used sarin gas against civilians on 4 April.
If we just go back and see US President Donald Trump as a private US citizen on Twitter and then as a presidential candidate, we see him quite good with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remaining in power. At that time he was of the opinion that US should not get involved in another Middle Eastern conflict in particular with one who is backed by Russia. When he won the elections, he told Wall Street Journal: “My attitude was you‘re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting Isis, and you have to get rid of Isis”. This was the basis on which Assad called Trump “a natural ally”.
On March 30, Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, said that the US needed to “pick and choose [its] battles”, though Bashar al-Assad was accused of human rights violations. “Our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out”.
In spite of all this, the United States launched 59 cruise missiles on Shayrat Airbase, a Syrian airfield, on the morning of 7 April 2017. It was alleged that this place was the base for the aircraft that carried out the chemical attack on Syrian citizens. It has been claimed by senior White House officials that Syrian military officers involved in the chemical weapons programme were at the Shayrat base before and on the day of Khan Sheikhun attack. They say that the attack was carried out by the Syrian air force SU-22 war plane, dropping at least one munitions containing sarin. A US official laid blame on Russians’ connivance with the Syrians in this alleged attack without any sound evidence, speculating on the premise that there has been long-term collaboration between the two countries.
Foreign ministers from the G7 nations met in Italy on Monday 10th and Tuesday 11th April and the meeting focused on putting pressure on Russia. Boris Johnson led the push and asked the participants to allow more sanctions against Russian and Syrian leaders suggesting that they could follow the findings of an investigation by the independent Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
But Germany and Italy, who were of the opinion that the increasing broad economic restrictions on Russia would be counterproductive, could not be influenced by Boris, and the Italian foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, said it would be wrong to isolate Russia or push it into a corner.
The allegation of chemical attack was vehemently refuted by Putin who said that Western and Turkish accusations that Syrian government had dropped nerve agent sarin that killed dozens of civilians in Idlib earlier in April, were comparable with the now discredited claim that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. “It reminds me of the events in 2003 when US envoys to the Security Council were demonstrating what they said were chemical weapons found in Iraq”, the Russian President told reporters on 11 April. “We have seen it already”.
Thus, Vladimir Putin’s support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was further strengthened as he shrugged off western criticism and claimed that his opponents planned fake chemical weapons attacks to justify further US missile strikes.
The US President Donald Trump showed constant change of colours with regard to his approach towards American involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts. The day after the alleged chemical attack and on the first day when images of the suggested victims were published, Trump said Assad had crossed “many, many lines”. Hours before guided-missile destroyers launched 59 Tomahawk missiles, Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, indicated that Trump had reversed his position completely. “Assad’s role in the future is uncertain, clearly. With the acts that he had taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people”, he said.
When the media men asked Tillerson about US preparations to rally an international coalition to remove Assad from power, he replied: “Those steps are under way”. In spite of all that the US administration kept on changing position. Thus, soon after the missile attack , the newly appointed national security advisor HR McMaster described the US attack as “aimed at the capacity to commit mass murder with chemical weapons, but it was not of a scope or scale that it would go after all such related facilities”.
On 9 April, Tillerson said: “Our priority is first to defeat Isis”. Once the US “conclude” that war, the US would attempt to broker ceasefire agreements between the Syrian civil war’s combatants. Tillerson said he was hopeful to work with Russia “and use their influence to achieve areas of stabilisation throughout Syria and create the conditions for a political process through Geneva in which we can engage all of the parties …”Nothing about Tillerson’s statement implied that Assad’s “fate” would be to leave power. Contrary to that, Tillerson insinuated that overthrowing Assad would be disastrous, and to that he cited Obama’s adventurism in Libya: “Any time you go in and have a violent change at the top, it is very difficult to create the conditions for stability longer-term”. Yet we see that the contradictions in American policy know no bounds, as Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador in the UN, though agreed with Tillerson on the importance of “the political solution”, she added: “In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government, and we have to make sure we’re pushing that process”.
On 11 April, Tillerson told the journalists after the G7 summit: “It is clear to all of us the reign of Assad family is coming to an end. But the question of how that ends and the transition itself could be very important in our view to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria”.
The Trump era in the White House is not short of eccentrics as we see the White House press secretary Sean Spicer comparing Syria’s Bashar al-Assad with Hitler: “We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You had someone as despicable as Hitler who did not even sink to using chemical weapons”.
During his election campaign, Trump emphasised that his only focus in Syria would be defeating Islamic State, repeatedly signalling that he had little interest in regime change. But he ended that policy by launching missile attack on Khan Sheikhun.
In the final analysis, what can be said about US policy in Syria is that it is full of contradictions, unclear, ambiguous and confusing more now than it was before Trump.