TRUMP EXERTS LEADERSHIP OVER SYRIA BUT WILL HE REMAIN COMMITTED?
The predawn American airstrike on a Syrian airfield on April 7 was stunning.
When the first report that chemical weapons were used on Syrian civilians reached Washington, President Trump swiftly issued a statement in which he said the carnage “cannot be tolerated.” But he criticized not Syria or Russia which backs Syria, but former President Obama instead for his “weak-kneed” policy toward the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
Trump’s message was devoid of any particular words of sympathy for the victims of the attack. Fifty-three hours later, however, Trump did a complete turnaround, ordering a strike on Al Shayrat Airfield from which Assad’s government allegedly launched the chemical attack on April 4. Trump indignantly stated:
“Innocent people, including women, small children and even beautiful little babies (were murdered)…My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”
His anger was valid, I believe. But how long—and to what extent—will his anger last? Will his indignation constitute a factor enabling America to restore its position as a world leader committed to nurturing a new world order?
News of the American strike on Syria probably came more as a humiliation than a surprise to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who had been invited to Trump’s palatial villa in Florida for a face-to-face meeting with his American counterpart.
True, the leaders of the world’s two biggest economies took great pains to create an impression of carrying on an amicable conversation on a host of difficult issues, such as bilateral trade and North Korea’s missile and nuclear program. Trump also urged Xi to honor international norms as regards the East and South China Seas and stand by China’s promise that it would not build military strongholds in these waters.
Trump sternly questioned his guest about the runways on the Spratly Islands, but Xi said they were simply “runways for the residents,” according to a senior US government official.
Trump also warned Xi that the US was prepared to act alone if China does not take a tougher stand against North Korea, but Xi refused to make a clear-cut answer. On his part, Xi reiterated China’s basic position regarding its core interests—such as Taiwan, Tibet, and the South China Sea. He also repeated China’s opposition to the projected deployment in South Korea of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense system.
The two leaders obviously failed to make any meaningful progress on the critical issues pending between Washington and Beijing. And, at the very moment Trump and Xi were engaged in a cordial conversation to demonstrate their seemingly amicable relationship, the US went ahead with an air attack on Syria in retaliation for the chemical attack. The missile launch against Syria, which the US forged ahead with strictly on its own, clearly was a thinly veiled warning against North Korea and China which backs the regime of Kim Jong-un. Trump informed Xi of the attack at the end of their dinner.
Assad’s Chemical Attacks on His Own People
An explanation by White House spokesman Sean Spicer revealed that the White House had meticulously planned the Syrian missile attack. Trump issued his order to attack at 4 p.m. on April 6 (Washington time). Three hours and 40 minutes later, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from two destroyers deployed in the eastern Mediterranean, hitting their targets within a span of ten minutes between 8:30 and 8:40 p.m.
Then a team of presidential advisors, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, started calling Congressional leaders and foreign heads of state, informing them of the decision to attack the Syrian airfield.
As it turned out, most governments understood and supported the independent American action without a United Nations resolution—obvious proof that the world has been waiting for a strong America, and its rebirth as a world leader committed to the peace and stability of the international community.
Meanwhile at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s villa, the dinner for the two leaders and their entourage had begun by 7 p.m. Trump briefed Xi on the Syrian attack when they finished their deserts, according to the White House spokesman Sean Spice. Tillerson followed up with a more detailed explanation of Xi’s reaction.
According to Tillerson, Trump explained to Xi that the US military had just carried out an attack because Assad had ignored an international agreement, using chemical weapons against his own people and killing many “women, children, and little babies.”
Xi responded he “understood that such a response was necessary when people are killing children,” and expressed “appreciation” that Trump took the time to explain the details of and purpose behind the missile strike.
Xi’s reaction, in which he appeared to have been overawed by Trump’s determination for decisive action, differed completely from the image of the Chinese leader who insisted that the military runways on the reclaimed islets in the Spratly Islands are simply for the residents. China’s ambassador to the United Nations, Liu Jieyi, while not mentioning the US specifically, criticized the military action as “only complicating (the situation in Syria) … worsening the suffering of the Syrian people.” But his criticism had no punch now that the Chinese president had already told Trump that he “understood” the US action under the circumstances.
While China meticulously prepared for the summit, the Trump administration appeared ill-prepared, having failed to fill several key government posts that would normally be involved in such discussions. This generated a fear that the Chinese would overwhelm the Americans in negotiating trade and security. That was why some quarters thought the summit premature. However, Trump’s drastic decision to launch missiles into Syria turned the situation dramatically in America’s favor.
Trump’s Lightening Decision
The US action against Syria must also have dispirited Putin. The Russian Ministry of Defense on April 7 claimed that only 23 of the 59 missiles from US destroyers reached their targets at Al Shayrat Airfield, describing the combat efficiency of the US strike as “quite poor.” Conversely, however, Tillerson emphasized on the same day that the operation was successful, maintaining that all of the missiles hit their targets.
Fumio Ota of the Japan Institute of National Fundamentals (JINF), a privately financed conservative think tank I head in Tokyo, had this to say about the strike: “Both Russia and China have a similar type of missile, but China’s has yet to stand the test of actual warfare. That all the American missiles hit their targets with precision must constitute a real threat to both the Chinese and the Russians.”
Prior to launching the missiles into Syria, America went to considerable lengths to avoid confrontation with the Russians. The destroyer-launched missiles initially cruised southward, veered northwest over Israel, then took a detour to avoid a coastal military base near Latakia used by Russia’s navy and air force, before eventually striking Al Shayrat Airfield.
On April 4, Syrian aircraft were believed to have taken off from this airfield to conduct the chemical attack, leaving more than 70 civilians dead and several hundred others injured. The US made sure to not strike any Russian facilities at the base, even going to the extent of warning the Russians two hours ahead of the attack.
With the US behaving in this fashion, Tadae Takubo, Deputy Director of JINF and an international affairs expert, suspects Putin will likely try to avoid a further deterioration of US-Russia relations, explaining:
“Several grave crises have hit Putin in recent months, including some significant anti-government demonstrations. On March 26, marches attracted 30,000 citizens opposing Putin and his government in Moscow and another 10,000 in St. Petersburg. Then on April 3, there was a terrorist attack on the St. Petersburg subway. I have a feeling that Putin, with more than enough on his plate, will eventually have no choice but to find a way of reconciling with the US, which has gone on the offensive with an uncommonly speedy decision, backed by an unsurpassed military capability.”
On April 9, the Commander of the US Forces in the Pacific ordered the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and several other warships towards the Korean Peninsula. With the North Korean situation as precarious as ever, anything could happen at any time. It remains unclear whether or not the US, with an apparently renewed sense of international commitment under Trump, will in fact be able to nurture a new order for the international community.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 750 in the April 20, 2017 edition of The Weekly Shincho)