With the US strikes on Syria and Afghanistan, coming in quick succession and without the much-anticipated reset of relations with Russia, the world suddenly looks more dangerous.
The world we live in was already in sufficient disarray and an advanced stage of entropy well before the election of the 45th president of the US.
It was Hillary Clinton who appeared the ‘interventionist’ during the election campaign, mainly due to her role in advocating the ‘use of force’ in Libya. This perception was further fuelled by statements she made while campaigning. Donald Trump, on the other hand, repeated ever so often that he wanted to extricate the US from perilous interventions, especially of the kind undertaken in Iraq, Libya and earlier in Afghanistan, the multi-layered crises in Syria being difficult to characterise.
He had also underlined his resolve to reset relations with Russia. The anticipated reset would also facilitate, it was expected, an approach to finding a solution to the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and the problems in the Ukraine. But that is not how the situation has unfolded. The deep state has effectively carried the day thus far.
One view is that the impulsiveness, combativeness and recklessness that characterised Trump’s election campaign have survived the transition into presidency. Another view is captured by Henry Kissinger’s statement to CBS News last December that Trump’s presidency could present “an extraordinary opportunity” for US foreign policy.
Less than a hundred days into office, Trump has contributed, at the very least, to an exacerbation of tensions. He has struck Syria with Tomahawk missiles and dropped the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal on Afghanistan.
Naval assets, projecting muscularity, it was suggested were on their way towards a sabre-rattling, nuclear-armed North Korea. It later transpired they were en route to exercising with the Australian navy in the Indian Ocean. The military drills being undertaken by the US and North Korea succeed in some messaging but have limitations.
Coming in quick succession and without the much-anticipated reset of relations with Russia, the world suddenly looks more dangerous.
An additional factor making for uncertainty is the growing apprehension that an accident may cause an outbreak of hostilities, including one involving nuclear-weapon states. For several decades, we sought reassurance from the deterrence value of nuclear weapons. There has of course always been the fear that such weapons might fall into the hands of non-state actors. These fears pale into insignificance when such arsenals and delivery systems are in the possession of unstable and unpredictable regimes like the one presently in North Korea.
What exactly is happening?
Are we staring at the prospects of another major war that could involve two or more permanent members of the UN Security Council? Possibly not, but the risk of an accidental outbreak of hostilities cannot be ruled out. In an evolving situation of the kind that we find ourselves in presently, it is best to avoid broad generalisations and to look at individual issues and events.
First, the Tomahawk missiles fired into Khan Shaykhun in Syria on April 4, 2017 following the nerve agent attack. The reason given was that Bashar al-Assad had crossed the red line on the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict. The use of chemical weapons, as well as the use of any other weapon of mass destruction, constitutes a war crime and needs to be condemned and its perpetrators brought to justice. The White House released an intelligence summary on April 11, 2017.
How strong is the evidence that it was the Assad regime that was responsible for this attack? This has been analysed by Theodore Postal of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and he makes the following points in an analysis:
- The document does not provide any evidence whatsoever that the US government has concrete knowledge that the government of Syria was the source of the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun.
- The source was very likely tampered with or staged, so no serious conclusion could be made from the photographs cited by the White House.
- The report contains absolutely no evidence that this attack was the result of munition being dropped from an aircraft
He then goes on to say:
Analysis of the debris as shown in the photographs cited by the White House clearly indicates that the munition was almost certainly placed on the ground with an external detonating explosive on top of it that crushed the container so as to disperse the alleged load of sarin.
We again have a situation where the White House has issued an obviously false, misleading and amateurish intelligence report.
If this analysis is valid, the US faces the embarrassment of a repeat of the 2003 scenario when it undertook military operations against Saddam Hussein ostensibly because of the existence of weapons of mass destruction. That was then a false and contrived narrative. This one appear to be headed in that direction. It is entirely possible that moved by the photographs of children dying as a result of the release of the nerve agent, Ivanka Trump succeeded in persuading the president to demonstrate a robust response.
Where does all this leave the conduct of Trump’s foreign policy? In so far as Syria is concerned, the firing of the Tomahawks as a one-time action is unlikely to deter either Assad or Iran and Russia, his two backers. It is unlikely that ISIS could either be fought or a solution found to the Syrian crisis without a reset of relations with Russia and some accommodation with Iran. The US does not have the wherewithal to do so by itself or just with the help of its allies in the Gulf. The solution to the multi-layered Syrian crisis which is at once a civil war, a proxy war and a sectarian war can only be found through a three-step solution which was on the table in August, 2011, when India presided over the Security Council. That solution was viable then and constitutes the only way forward now. A ceasefire, a walking back by all the stakeholder on both side – Assad backers Russia and Iran, and the supporters of the ‘moderate opposition’, US, Gulf States etc. – and an-all inclusive Syrian peace process as part of which Assad will step down. There was near agreement then, it is only when the US flip-flopped on Assad stepping down as a precondition that a question arose, which party would provide the security guarantees for the Alawite community that constitutes 12% of the population? Since none were forthcoming, it was felt that Assad would have to continue in the interim.
In so far as North Korea is concerned, clearly, the road to Pyongyang lies through Beijing. Not only does China account for 80% of North Korea’s trade but more important, it can exercise direct leverage if it reduces or altogether cuts off imports of coal from North Korea. The more important question is, will China oblige the US? In all likelihood, China will use the North Korean situation to reset its own relationship with the Trump administration, an effort in which it has already succeeded to some extent. Equally, it would be useful to make a realistic assessment as to the extent to which China indeed has “a margin of persuasion” with North Korea. Kim Jong-un does not respond to the description of a ‘normal’ leader. In the case of Russia, that margin was overestimated, beyond a point, as far as Assad was concerned.
Barring an accident, it is unlikely that hostilities will break out. The exacerbation of tensions both in Syria and North Korea, do, however, contribute to the overall picture and perception of a slightly more dangerous world.
Once the Trump administration settles down, it will realise that in the hardball world of real politick, the options available are limited to a choice between different shades of the lousy. The nearly vacant seventh floor in the State Department and the absence of ambassadors in Tokyo and Seoul could be contributing to moves that appear amateurish.
The Global Times of Beijing in an editorial, ‘Carl Vinson scandal sours Trump’s authority’ said, “The truth seems to be that the US military and president jointly created fake news and it is without doubt a rare scandal in US history, which is bound to cripple Trump’s and the US’ dignity.”
Hardeep S. Puri is a diplomat and the author of Perilous Interventions, Harper Collins, 2016.