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Spinning the wheel: Trump won't do much about Syria Open in fullscreen

Imad K. Harb

Spinning the wheel: Trump won't do much about Syria

Trump doesn't have a consistent policy on Syria, or much else [AFP]

Date of publication: 14 April, 2017

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Comment: Donald Trump has no idea what he's doing, writes Imad K. Harb.
The Trump administration seems to be of many minds about its approach to Syria and its President Bashar al-Assad.

After striking al-Shayrat airfield following the Syrian regime's chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, the administration has not been able to formulate a coherent or cohesive position that could intimate what exactly its stance on Syria actually is.

President Donald Trump chastised Russia for supporting "this animal" [Assad], after he declared that "something should happen" following the gassing attack. But he still refused to go "into Syria" and, in the same breath, laid the blame on the Obama administration for not doing something before.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the missile strike was a one-time shot to send a message after the chemical attack - and that the United States had not changed its position regarding regime change in Damascus.

And yet, he also chastised Russia for failing to "prevent Syria from carrying out a chemical attack". At the G7 meeting in Italy before his visit to Moscow, he announced that Assad's era was "coming to an end".

US Amabassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced that the United States did not see any "peace and stability in Syria" with Assad in power. National Security Advisor HR McMaster meanwhile called on Russia to "re-evaluate its support" for Assad, and repeated his position on the difficulty of sustaining the Damascus regime.
These different positions and the general confusion surrounding what really drives American policy in Syria are only reflections of the lack of a strategic direction for the administration


But these different positions and the general confusion surrounding what really drives American policy in Syria are only reflections of the lack of a strategic direction for the administration. Indeed, President Trump has not called for, nor advocated, any certain ideological orientation domestically or internationally.
What has so far led administration policy is an ad hoc approach that has dealt with the fleeting and immediate instead of deeply studying circumstances and conditions and planning for the long term. Syria is one of those topics about which the president and his assistants have minimal knowledge; the lack of a strategic direction exacerbates that ignorance.
Video: What did Trump's missile strikes actually hit?

This is why there is no discernible US policy regarding Syria. President Trump may express the deepest sorrow and regret for the deaths of civilians and children, by chemical or conventional means, and may launch a one-off attack on Syria. But the deeper concern is in a longer commitment that goes beyond the event at hand.

Consequently, looking at what the United States is prepared to do about Syria must surpass important obstacles of the president's making, or arising from his constituency's desires.

First, his administration lacks the deliberative and decision-making bodies and mechanisms necessary for understanding the nuances of any policy, let alone on Syria. In contrast to the Obama administration, Trump's White House and his Departments of State and Defense have not even begun appointing essential personnel, besides Secretaries Tillerson and James Mattis.

The National Security Council is short on permanent staff; instead, infighting has resulted in resignations and re-assignments from an institution that, from the outset, lacked the necessary depth for a coherent and achievable Syria policy.

Second, what is required for a firm US policy on Syria is an ideological commitment to a foreign policy orientation articulated by the occupant of the Oval Office. But from what is available of President Trump's political history before his election is mainly anecdotal, piecemeal, and ad hoc, expressed mainly in trivial press interviews or in tweets limited to 140 characters of text.

Read more: 10 times Donald Trump tweeted against attacking Syria


Third, the president and his administration lack the critical mass of foreign policy mainstream establishment theorists and practitioners who have studied American politics and history since the end of the Second World War.
Syria brings to the United States a problem that reminds Americans of the Iraq fiasco, for which they are still paying in blood and treasure


Instead, he has the support of a public constituency - indeed a minority of the population - that dislikes and distrusts those who think of the United States as a global power. His constituency intimately holds and believes in the principles of "America First"; isolationist, parochial, and expecting others to solve their own problems.

Finally - and this is not the president's fault - Syria brings to the United States a problem that reminds Americans of the Iraq fiasco, for which they are still paying in blood and treasure. Liberals in general oppose American military foreign entanglements, while conservatives, and primarily Trump's xenophobic supporters, think these waste resources without necessarily serving America's interests.

The Trump administration's position on Syria will thus remain ambiguous; despite the much-ballyhooed tension with Russia which, incidentally, is being used as vindication that the president is no friend of Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, Syria continues to shed blood and bleed refugees, as Bashar al-Assad kills more innocent civilians.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab

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