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Syrian missile attack: Trump plays with fire

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The US attack on a Syrian airbase near Homs marked a dangerous and dramatic escalation of the conflict in that country. In the night from 6 to 7 April, the US Navy launched up to 60 missiles and severely damaged the airbase.

Trump's order to attack took many by surprise and raised the concern of millions over what it means for the future. For years, he campaigned vehemently against Obama's engagement with the Syrian civil war and argued against Hillary Clinton's calls for direct intervention. More recently, he declared that removing Assad was no longer an objective. Does this missile attack mark an entirely new policy, or is this a case of a President wanting to prove that he can act decisively and swiftly after so many failures on the domestic front?

Clearly, Assad, his regime, his backers in Moscow and Teheran have themselves been prepared to use any barbaric means to pursue their own objectives. Assad, his army and secret services have drowned the Syrian people in blood, instigating a civil war which has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands and driven millions from their homes, making them refugees in their own country or abroad. It is highly likely that it was Assad and his air-force who used chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, although why they resorted to such a barbaric action, when they were winning in the civil war and when the US had accepted that Assad was going to remain in office, is unclear. It might be that the Syrian regime, or its Iranian backers, feared a Russia-US deal to “pacify” the country at its expense. In the next days or weeks these motives might become clearer.

What is immediately clear, however, is that Trump's decision to bomb a Syrian airbase has nothing to do with “humanitarian concerns”. If his concern were to stop the deaths of innocent people, why no action against similar levels of barbarity against the people of Yemen by Saudi Arabia?

Whatever the strategic implications, the bombing was clearly intended to assert Trump's presidency as a powerful and determined force at home and abroad. By ordering the air-strike, Trump was able to unite the whole political establishment of the US, Republicans and Democrats behind him. After a number of defeats and declining popularity, he is now playing the “national unity” card.

Just like the Congress in the US, all the NATO-allies in Europe were quick to support the “measured” initiative of the US. Not only May or Netanyahu applauded the quick response, but also Merkel and Holland issued a joint statement of “understanding” for the attack.

For Trump, it is also clearly a warning to Iran and Russia. Given that it was ordered while China's president, Xi Jinping, is a guest at Trump's holiday home, it was also a major snub to Beijing, North Korea's main source of economic, military and diplomatic support. Even if, as reported, Russia was warned of the attack in advance, which means Syria was also warned, in order to limit the effect of the air-strike, it was nonetheless a demonstration to the Russian administration that the US is prepared to intervene in its sphere of influence without too much concern for the long term consequences.

It is unclear, whether the attack marks a strategic shift in US-policy on Syria and vis a vis Russia, or if Trump's objective is limited to a show of force to ensure greater US involvement in the negotiations over Syria and the re-ordering of the Middle East. What is clear, however, and in this respect there is a continuity in his policy, is that he is prepared to use drastic measures, rapid shifts, quick responses in order to gain quick tactical and political advantages to implement his “America first” policy.

Under the Trump presidency, US-imperialism has not only become a force determined to reassert its global dominance, but also a force that is much less predictable, which is likely to make rapid shifts in policy and to engage in quick attacks and turns. Trump wants to present this as a sign of strength. In reality, it is just as much a sign of weakness and a lack of a strategy thought out to the end.

Whilst superficial commentators see this as a result of his personality, of a “wrong choice” at the US elections, it is actually a reflection of the growing instability and the sharpening struggle for the re-division of the world.

The strike against the Syrian airbase, whether it was “calculated” to bully Assad and Putin into accepting more US-influence at the negotiation table over the country's future, or designed to force China to pressurise North Korea into submission, it is certainly playing with fire. What may be intended as a “limited” operation could lead to a sharpening conflict not only with the Syrian regime, but also with its backers in Moscow and Teheran, or even with Beijing.

In Syria itself, there is no reason to cheer. The leaders of the Syrian opposition are at best light-minded in applauding the air strikes. Some may indeed be little more than desperate US-puppets. A stronger US engagement will not help the Syrian people as a whole, to say nothing of the democratic forces and the Kurdish national minority. It will only ensure that Syria's future will be even more dependent on the struggles between the different imperialists and the reactionary regional powers. In the worst case, it could even turn a proxy war into a global clash between the great powers.

Therefore, revolutionaries have to condemn the air-strikes, just as they condemn all calls for imperialist intervention, be that “unilateral” or via the UN. They need to demand the immediate withdrawal of ALL imperialist troops; US, Russian or Western European from the entire region and for an end to the interventions by regional powers; Iran, the Gulf States, Turkey, or their proxies, in Syria. They need to call for immediate humanitarian support for the Syrian people, financed by the big powers, the opening of the borders for the millions of refugees not only to neighbouring states, but into the European Union.

It is the Syrian workers and peasants, and national minorities like the Kurdish people, who need to hold Assad and arch reactionary forces like the Islamic State to account, not imperialists like Putin or Trump.