I have written extensively (such as this article) about the fact that the Obama administration could and should have ended the civil war by intervening in Syria to enforce their own chemical weapons “red line”. Obama’s failure to deliver on that very reasonable threat has done untold damage to Syria, to its people, but also to America’s ability to project power and promote its interests around the world.
Not to be outdone, President Trump has now made matters even worse. Though he has failed to intervene, President Obama did at least impose some restraint on the Assad regime, by getting both him and his Russian allies to agree that the Syrian government should surrender all chemical weapons. At the very least, Syrian civilians would no longer need to worry about the threat that they will be gassed by their own president.
But that was then. As it turns out, Assad still has some Sarin gas stockpiles lying around and what better use for it than to drop it on his own civilians, once more?
And the response from the White House? Have at it, Bashar! Syria is no longer a priority for America. Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are rather more preoccupied with smoothing things over with Russia. What is a few more hundreds of dead civilians in Syria to the hundreds of thousands we have already?
This, of course, does nothing to allay concerns over Trump’s dealings with Russia. Though, to be fair, the administration has been increasingly brazen in the face of mounting evidence on that front.
A former Trump adviser has insisted that giving documents to a Russian spy was “no big deal” while a former national security advisor to Trump, Michael Flynn, has a “story to tell” about the administration’s links to Russia in exchange for immunity.
If tyrants like Assad can now deploy chemical weapons against civilians with impunity, any pretense that international law is still in force has to be abandoned. This attack is a war crime, and nobody is queuing up to respond to itDr. Azeem Ibrahim
Turning point in geopolitics
Nevertheless, this potentially marks a very dangerous turning point in geopolitics. If tyrants like Assad can now deploy chemical weapons against civilians with impunity, any pretence that international law is still in force has to be abandoned. This attack is a war crime, and nobody is queuing up to respond to it.
The United States would normally be the first to respond, and its allies would join in. Now the United States has declared it has no interest in the situation, and the other Western countries, for all their protestations, have neither the capacity, nor the will to intervene on their own in any effective manner.
What is worse, this does not in any way promote in any way American interests. America’s Western allies did not need any more reason to be concerned over the new direction Trump is dragging the United States towards.
Such a stark difference in the moral response over what is expected from America in the world, and the clear preference towards Russian interests even at the cost of implicit American strategic interests is not going to put anyone in NATO at ease. Nor is the European Union be happy about the next incoming wave of Syrian refugees this escalating situation in Syria is likely to produce.
Trump seems to be doing exactly what many of his supporters claimed he would do: “shake things up”. What that will mean for the United States domestically remains to be seen. But for Syria, this already means giving Assad and Putin free reign to commit as many crimes against humanity as they wish.
For the wider Middle East, this will translate into further destabilization and the increased likelihood of full-blown war. For America’s allies, this means that America’s treaties and commitments are hardly worth the paper they are written on.
And for the world, it means that the United States has forfeited its rightful place as leader among nations. So much for America and “greatness”.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.