By Striking Syria, Trump Showed He Is Not Putin’s Vassal
Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer gave an interview for Le Monde on April 10th, 2017, on president Trump’s decision to strike the Syrian Shayrat airbase in response to the chemical weapons attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. She said that the quick decision to strike aimed at ostensibly demonstrating that he will take a harder line against Syria, unlike his predecessor Barack Obama. The moral cost of inaction was perceived as higher than the cost of action.
These “punitive strikes” are in fact the strikes that French president Hollande had requested in the summer of 2013, after the Ghouta chemical attack. Trump’s strikes should be understood as a demonstration of force and a clear warning addressed to Assad and his supporters (Russia, Iran) and to other powers who are tempted to test the U.S., most notably North Korea and China.
Domestically, the strikes reveal a rebalance of power inside the White House, with the side-lining of Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon, who are known for their pro-Russian positions, in favor of more traditional Republican figures, like Gen. McMaster, who along with James Mattis and Rex Tillerson, has played a decisive role in triggering the military strikes. The strikes are also a classic strategy of diversion in a difficult political context for Trump and a means to show that he is not Putin’s vassal.
Trump is very consistent with the foreign policy views he developed these last 30 years. Syria shows that Trump’s foreign policy will be characterized by robust unilateralism and selective interventionism, with the risk of increasing tensions internationally. The strikes in Syria further erode relations with Russia and Iran, but might also force them to the negotiation table, by elevating the costs of escalation.
Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer also commented on the impact of the U.S. strikes in the French presidential campaign. She said they both reassured French mainstream political candidates who see Trump’s decision as marking the return of the classic “Washington playbook,” and embarrassed them because they are compelled to react and take a position on the relations with Russia and Assad, and the use of military force in Syria.
The U.S. strikes have the merit of clarifying Trump’s position and raising Assad at the same level of threat as the Islamic State. They also show that it is impossible to collaborate with Russia against the Islamic State, as long as it supports the Assad regime, with Iran’s support.
The next French president will have to decide whether he/she will pursue president Hollande’s request for an “internationalization” of the U.S. military action, which would imply a participation of France, not only as a member of the anti-Islamic State coalition but also as a stakeholder in the war against Assad.