In a surprise move, the U.S. changed, in just a few days, its position on the Syrian civil war. Thus, as known, the Trump administration officially gave up, on 30 March 2007, the position that Barack Obama expressed in 2012, namely that Syrian leader Bashar Assad should be removed from power and excluded from the process of negotiating the transition in this country. The statement renouncing this position, given by U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson at a press conference in Ankara on 30 March 2017, using the formula “Assad’s fate will be decided by the Syrian people,” was bolstered by the U.S. ambassador to the UN on the same day, who also offered explanations on Washington’s fundamental change of policy. After an air strike with sarin gas killed almost 100 persons in Idlib province on April 4, the Trump administration urgently debated the position it had to adopt. As a result of the decision taken, an airbase belonging to Syrian government forces was bombed on April 6, thus marking the return to the previous U.S. position on the Syrian civil war: the removal of President Assad from power.
This rapid shift in the Trump administration’s position had an unexpected effect on the public opinion and on experts, who immediately sought to identify the motive and especially the next steps that the U.S. plans to take in the Syrian civil war and, by extension, on the international arena.
The amplitude of the impact of Trump’s decision in chancelleries all over the world and on public opinion is explainable, being known that he is under a very intense American media barrage because of his team’s ties with Russia during the elections campaign, not few of those active on social networks forecasting a possible impeachment of the president. In fact, Trump experienced a considerable drop in approval ratings after less than 100 days in office, precisely because of this “Russian dossier,” some of his former collaborators being suspected of illegal actions and even removed from the offices held (in February, M. Flynn was sacked from his position as chief of the National Security Council). Trump’s media opponents, who never stopped their attacks on the measures that the president took since he was sworn in, have been silenced for a moment by this turn of events. Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum noted on Twitter simply that it’s “Hard to know what to say about a bombing raid that appears to be part of no coherent strategy whatsoever.” Her commenters, just as bewildered, noted that “You say there is no coherent strategy to this. Just a deranged POTUS playing with his toys” or “It’s mimicry of the IS strategy….random attacks….keep people guessing…or he’s clueless…” or “into this thick fog of fake news, we could be on the right side of the equation or wrong but our intentions should be good.” Such staunch opponents of Trump were not the only ones disoriented for a few hours, trying to identify the appropriate way of interpreting the decision taken at the White House, public opinion was disoriented too. On one hand, the states involved in the Syrian dossier, members of the U.S.-led coalition whose goal is to eliminate the so-called Islamic Caliphate, immediately and officially welcomed the decision taken at the White House and expressed their support.
On the other hand, Assad’s backers – Russia and Iran – vehemently protested against the attack on a sovereign country, calling it an illegal action. At the same time, numerous interpretation scenarios were expressed by the international public opinion. While the motivation of the support for or opposition to the action carried out, coming from the chancelleries of the states involved, is presumable, various opinions were expressed in the international public opinion, some contradictory, reflecting different angles of approach, but outlining the image of a watershed even at international level, whose consequences are yet to be fully clarified.
What must be said from the start is that the variety of these interpretations is eloquent proof of the complexity of today’s international life, but also of the political leaders’ immense responsibility in the case of such measures, which can have a profound, even catastrophic impact on the global stage. In respect to this last aspect, it’s sufficient to quote Russian Premier D. Medvedev’s interpretation, who deemed that the American attack in Syria, on April 6, was “on the verge of a military clash” with Russia, stating that the American president was “broken by the US power machine.” On Twitter, Carl Bildt did not shy away from noting: “Most anticipated statement of today is the one eventually coming out of Moscow. Bow down? Or go ballistic? I guess the debate is ongoing.” Thus, Russia will abandon the race with the U.S. or resort to confrontation. To understand some of the opinions expressed by the international public opinion, it’s worth mentioning that the U.S. informed Russia about the attack several hours before it occurred, so that the Russian armed forces present in Syria would have the possibility of avoiding clashes or of aiding Syrian defence, everything taking place in line with previous agreements between the two great powers. In fact, among the media’s explanations for this unexpected change of policy, not few concern the state of U.S.-Russia relations at this moment, the question asked being whether the action that Trump ordered in Syria could be the result of collaboration between the two states, or prompted by the desire to change the perception of relations between them.
For instance, some opinions raise direct questions concerning a potential agreement with the Kremlin over this action – “Trump doesn’t give a shit about what’s happening in Syria but he needs to ‘prove’ he’s not a pal of Putin. Did they cut a deal?” – or, on the contrary, that the action in Syria is “a way to show he’s not working with Russia.” An opinion already included in the category of conspiracy theories is the one expressed by journalist Lawrence O’Donnell, namely: “Wouldn’t it be nice, if it was just completely, totally, absolutely impossible to suspect that Vladimir Putin orchestrated what happened in Syria this week — so that his friend in the White House could have a big night with missiles and all the praises he’s picked up over the past 24 hours?” A commenter posted a question – “why are they not targeting Assad?” – which warns about the flimsiness of this theory. Another motive frequently present in the comments posted on social networks is that Trump intended to warn the North Korean communist regime, which has lately accelerated the brandishing of its nuclear arsenal capable of intercontinental strikes. Ian Bremmer considers that now a key question is: “What will Trump take away from success in one off strike on Assad? Do it again? Less risk in taking on N Korea? That’s the danger.” Similarly, there are other explanations, which have to do with the Trump administration’s domestic politics, with the fierce power struggle within his team.
According to news published by the American online media, but not only by it, a fierce power struggle developed last week between two of President Trump’s close advisers, namely Steve Bannon and Jared Kuchner. The former is Trump’s former campaign chief, has right-wing orientation, is an adept of economic protectionism and of external non-interventionism, of the MAGA slogan, and was until last week the rightful member of the president’s supreme circle of advisers; the latter is Trump’s son-in-law, about to become the most important member of the presidential team. The dispute between the two was related to the action in Syria, Bannon opposing it. He called Kuchner – who was in favour of this action in Syria – a “globalist” and “Democrat.” Kuchner eventually prevailed, and it is speculated that Bannon will resign. The enormous concern at this stage is what will be the U.S.’s next step in Syria. As a European Council on Foreign Policy analysis pointed out on April 7: “In the end Assad’s flagrant use of chemical weapons necessitated a response. But by not linking the response to a viable broader strategy the strikes risk now inflaming the wider conflict and leaving the US vulnerable to being pulled, slowly but surely, into a new regional war.”