In 2003 President Bush Jr insisted beyond a shadow of a doubt that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Consequently, Hussein deserved a showdown like no other, one that ultimately saw Hussein hanged, prosperous Iraq destroyed, and law-abiding Iraqis obliterated as divisive and unruly sects emerged. And let’s not forget Islamic State finding in Iraq an easy gaping void.
It was proven afterwards that Saddam Hussein never possessed weapons of mass destruction, but after 11 September some country had to be at the receiving end of the bashing stick. Iraq was unfortunate enough to be the picked-on country, earning the wrath of the US.
Conveniently, Saddam had invaded Kuwait, irked George Bush senior, threatened Israel, and failed to abide by US rules; besides, Iraq had oil. Iraq fit the bill, so it became a fitting target. End result: one Arab country down.
Fast forward to today. Six years ago, Syria descended into civil war. Soon afterwards it became a festering ground for self-serving allegiances, with every player -- Iran, Turkey, the US, Russia, Sunnis, Alawites, Shias, opposition forces, Islamic State, other Islamists, and Assad's followers -- after its own conquest; amid all this the victims were without doubt the Syrians.
Lately, the world seemed willing to end the Syrian crisis. Islamic State was losing ground. The current US administration backed off from insisting that President Assad had to go. Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, also said that despite Russia’s support for Assad, the US and Russia can cooperate to end the war in Syria.
There was light at the end of the Syrian tunnel.
More significantly, Assad was in a better position than he had been in the last six years. And yet, out of the blue a chemical weapons attack struck Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held town, killing 89 and bringing all the promising efforts to a halt.
The US confirmed that chemical weapons were launched from Assad’s Shayrat Airfield. In retaliation, some 59 US air missiles hit the Shayrat Airfield killing 13 people and destroying the facility.
President Trump's swift decision to attack the airfield had far reaching ramifications that resonated around the world with benefits for the US president.
At face value, President Trump’s decision revealed a humane, empathetic president moved by the sight of dead children. “I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me, a big impact,” Trump said. But there is more to the attack than compassion towards Syrian children.
The strike told friends and foes that the US has taken upon itself the role of the almighty watchdog, affirming that a new sheriff is in the Oval Office. In particular, the attack was meant as a wake up call to North Korea, Russia, Iran, and the world at large. It said, “World, you had better watch out; the new president means business.”
No doubt the decision to act so speedily in the face of what seemed a hideous act improved Trump’s image among Americans too. Obama had once drawn a red line against Assad's use of chemical weapons, but went back on his word; here was Trump setting the red line in stone.
That the attack served President Trump and US is a given; that it helped Syrians is fictitious. The Syrian opposition cheered and terrorists celebrated. Weakening the Syrian army will allow Islamic State to dominate the area near the airfield. more importantly, it further pitted Syrians against one other.
Like Iraq, Syria was the perfect target. Like Saddam Hussein, Assad had irked the US. The Russians were proving themselves in Syria and had to be told off. And did the fact that the Syrian crisis was on the verge of ending irk some even further? End result: second Arab country stays down.
A symbolic but powerful move, the attack cost the US nothing but the missiles. The aim was not to aggravate the Russians to the point of retaliating, merely to tell them who is mightier. In fact, the Russians, who utilised the same airfield were forewarned an hour before the attack. Hence, the act angered Moscow, strained US-Russian relations further, but didn’t kill any Russians — end of story.
From another perspective altogether, Assad and the Russians denied that the Syrian army used chemical weapons. Russia asked the US to provide evidence for its claims and put the 4 April release of chemical weapons down to an air strike that hit a storage facility where rebels were storing them. Similar to what happened in Iraq, time will tell where the truth lies.
In an alarming but apt revelation, the BBC said in a story following the attack, “The question thus arises: who once again slipped something in to yet another US president as 'evidence' of the existence of 'chemical weapons' in a country Washington objects to, and what exactly was it?”
The attack and the ambience of superiority that followed will set the tone and approach for all American officials, a tone that is intimidating with words if not actions. Even before the attack US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said that she wears heels to kick those against Israel or those who talk down the US. After the attack, and while the US held the rotating leadership of the UN Security Council this month, Haley blasted not only Assad but the Iranian and the Russian governments for supporting Assad.
“Assad did this [launched a chemical weapon attack] because he thought he could get away with it. He thought he could get away with it because he knew Russia would have his back. That changed last night.”
Let’s hope this attitude abates. The world is not ready for another round of intimidation.
The writer is an academic, political analyst, and author of Cairo Rewind: the First Two Years of Egypt's Revolution, 2011-2013.