1. Trump Syrian Foreign Policy and its Consequences
The off-the-cuff remarks that Trump usually makes are based partly on his own instincts, partly on intelligence briefings, and partly on the advice and input he receives from multiple sources, in and outside of government. For several years, he has been on record in opposing “regime change” and embracing a rather curious combination of stronger military build up and neo-isolationism that goes hand-in-hand with his approach to international trade and opposition to multilateral commercial relations. Isolationism of course, does not preclude US unilateral action or invoking multilateralism when the US sees it to its advantage. His own problems with the investigation by Robert Mueller, mounting pressures from the strong bipartisan support for military interventionism both at home and from NATO and some Middle East countries, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia constantly forces Trump to consider military strikes as a way of appeasing disparate ideological, political, and of course defense industry groups. Trump is well aware of defense operation costs to the US budget, as he has repeatedly stated. However, he is hardly an expert on the multi-dimensional aspects and consequences of US military action, and the people with whom he surrounds himself are not interested in long-term consequences, only short-term political and strategic advantage. The larger question for the US political and defense establishment with all the corporate-funded thinks tanks advising them is what kind of relationship do they want with Russia and what limits are they willing to place on US military solutions, just as they expect the same of Russia. Unfortunately, these questions give way to immediate expediency for Trump but also to those in his cabinet and those in the State Department and Pentagon. At the same time, the inter-agency rivalry with the CIA carrying out its own operations simply adds another complication into the mix, especially given Trump’s distaste for the CIA as an agency.
2. Is the US Concerned about Syria's Use of Chemical Weapons?
People who are honest, above all with themselves if not with the public, will readily admit that empirical evidence must be furnished by an independent, UN-led mission to ascertain who has been using chemical weapons. Without independent confirmation to prove incontrovertibly that indeed Syria is responsible for using such weapons, we are left with conspiracy theories, speculation, propaganda and inability to work for a constructive foundation for US-Russia relations and a constructive political resolution to the Syrian civil war. If indeed the goal of the US is to bypass such a constructive relationship and continue with destabilization policies, then the present course is politically acceptable. However, it has multiple consequences for all parties concerned, including the US that in the end will be left with a larger foreign debt and smaller regional influence in the Middle East. For its part, Russia wants to retain Syria as a satellite to counterbalance the US-Saudi-Israeli influence. The problem for the US is that China leans more heavily toward the Russian position than the US. Beijing does not want US-NATO monopoly in the Middle East any more than Russia or Iran. If indeed the US does bomb Syrian targets, as it may in order to save face if nothing else, the goal will be a symbolic gesture to appease militarist adventurists in the US, placate multilateral militarists in the Western Alliance and the Middle East, and for Trump to receive a much-needed applause from both Republicans and Democrats alike and the mainstream media merely for demonstrating resolve and leadership because militarism is easily equated with leadership whereas diplomacy is seen as compromise. People who analyze foreign policy in order to promote an ideology or as an advertisement for the defense industry want military adventurism. Those interested in crisis-resolution know that there is no military solution for the Syrian crisis which is complex owing to considerable foreign intervention as well as a reflection of disparate divisions within Syria that range from religious and tribal to socioeconomic and political. There is an opportunity for a solution, but the only consideration for the US political, defense and business establishment is what influence will the US have once the negotiations are finished.
3. Russia has stated that it would shoot down US missiles fired over Syria, can this lead to a possible US-Russia confrontation?
Russia has spent several billions in the past seven years trying to act as a counterweight to the US and to retain the old Soviet-style influence with Syria, while also helping to defeat ISIS. It achieved the goal, but only with the help of Iran and late-in-the-game Turkish participation after Erdogan's disagreement with Saudi Arabia. The uncomfortable Moscow-Tehran-Ankara alliance to keep Syria out of US-NATO-Saudi influence could be at risk if an all-out military confrontation erupts between US and Russia even at the regional and very limited level. I believe that the Kremlin has to save face as much as Trump. However, Putin will think long and hard about how to avoid confrontation and what limits he is willing to put on the table as negotiating leverage, even if he has to return fire at a limited scope. Russia actually has a burden in Syria for it is not an easy thing carrying a satellite as the US knows – just ask the people who keep track of the costs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite those itching for war in the media, Pentagon, intelligence agencies, business circles and think tanks, the US public has no appetite for a war or destabilization that drive markets down. The problem is finding a mutually-agreed route out the crisis, and this is an enigma because there are many players and they disagree sharply. US-Russian confrontation is more frightening to Americans than a confrontation with North Korea.
4. US allies such as the UK, Australia and France have stated that they will consider a missile strike on Syria, what can we expect from US Western allies?
The Syrian crisis is where the EU can play a moderating role and actually mitigate it by demanding a political solution that does not also put at risk EU-Iranian relations. Surprisingly Germany, instead of France or the UK that present themselves as more progressive, could play that role partly because Germany has more to lose but also because Berlin sees its EU economic hegemony threatened by military adventures. The US could actually use the disagreements among NATO members as cover for military restraint, even if that means dropping a few bombs as show of strength and demonstration of superpower status. The nature of the highly integrated world economy, with China pulling so many strings from behind the scenes will help to avert a crisis. This does not mean that things cannot get out of control as they did with the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the world is more integrated today in it was sixty years ago. The Western Alliance is somewhat fractured not only because of Trump’s criticism of it and his tendency to opt for unilateral diplomacy, but also because China wields so much economic power as the world’s number one economic power in PPP terms, while the US remains number one in nominal GDP. The gap between rising US military power and declining economic power, the latter which is filled by China, forces re-alignment in practice although in theory the Western Alliance remains solid. Countries economically dependent on China while military dependent on the US take into account their broader interests, considering that economic power is in itself considerable leverage on diplomacy. Because of this variable, US military power has limitations as it is not backed by economic power as it was under Truman and Eisenhower.
5. Do you think it’s still likely that the US troops will withdraw from Syria in the short-term?
The US will not be withdrawing from Syria, no matter what Trump says. Of course, there could be some quid-pro-quo. Obama promised withdrawing from Afghanistan as well, but the US is still there in a highly dubious mission as a symbol of super-power status and little else. The CIA proxy war with Saudi Arabia providing financing to Syrian rebels, and Iran as a main target to be weakened as far as the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia are concerned, make it necessary for the US to remain in Syria in some fashion. If one steps back from this heated crisis and examines it from a dispassionate perspective, it may actually best serve the interests of the Syrian people to have some US-NATO influence in Syria for the intermediate term, and Putin may actually negotiate such a role. Not that Syria can become the modern model of Tito's Yugoslavia, but given the circumstances, negotiating some role for the West at least to buy time and give the people of Syria breathing room for reconstruction and development is not a bad solution that may suit all sides. Longer-term, who knows what happens in Syria? Just take a look at all the North African countries that underwent uprisings and Western interventions ostensibly to improve the lives of the people? Are the people of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, or Algeria better off today than they were before the uprisings? The tragedy is one suffered by the people of Syria who are victims, while foreign powers position themselves to influence the regional balance of power.