Syria: No distraction for US public opinion

Khaled Dawoud , Thursday 19 Apr 2018

The air strikes ordered by US President Donald Trump on Syria last week have failed to distract Americans from his many pending scandals

US President Donald Trump
File Photo: US President Donald Trump (AFP)

The US, British and French limited bombing campaign of three Syrian facilities that allegedly produced chemical weapons hardly stayed in America’s news cycle for 24 hours, as the worst case scenario was avoided and the missiles of the three Western countries did not hit either Russian or Iranian targets as punishment for their backing of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad over the past seven years.

Instead, what have been making the headlines are quotations from former FBI director James Comey, both in his newly released book “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership” and in a lengthy television interview in which he charged that the president was “morally unfit” to stay in his job and may have obstructed justice.

In a primetime television interview that preceded his book’s publication on Tuesday, Comey also said the Russians may have compromising information on Trump. The book likens Trump to a “mob boss” and gives details of claims that he consorted with prostitutes in Moscow.

In an interview aired on ABC Television on Sunday night hardly 24 hours after the tripartite missile attack against Syria, the former FBI director said he did not believe claims about Trump’s mental health, but did see him as being “morally unfit” to be president.

“A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it, that person’s not fit to be president of the United States,” Comey said.

He was referring to Trump’s argument that “both sides” were at fault for white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year.

Trump meanwhile ramped up his tweets on the former prosecutor he fired last year. On Friday, he called Comey an “untruthful slime ball” in a tweet, and in a Sunday tweet said that “slippery James Comey” would “go down as the WORST FBI director in history, by far!”

Another major distraction from the Syria military campaign took place on 16 April, when Trump’s long-term lawyer and personal confidante Michael Cohen appeared in federal court on a request to protect files seized by the FBI after raiding his office a few days before.

US porn star Stormy Daniels, who claims she had a sexual encounter with Trump, also attended the hearing.

Trump has raged about the raids on Cohen’s files, in which FBI agents seized documents related to an alleged payout to Daniels in exchange for her silence about the purported affair.

Trump’s tweet a week ago warning Russia to “get ready” because US missiles “will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” to Syria kept the world on tiptoe, with many wondering whether Syria could spark World War Three, leading to the clash between the US and Russia that never happened during the height of the Cold War.

The US president, who has been undergoing investigation since the day of taking office more than a year ago over allegations that he colluded with Russia to defeat his Democratic Party rival Hillary Clinton, also advised Moscow that “you shouldn’t be partners with a gas-killing animal who kills his people and enjoys it,” in a reference to Al-Assad.

However, Trump was obviously restrained by defence department and intelligence officials who opposed such an escalation and made it clear that they had no intention of going to war either against Russia or Iran.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and General Joseph Dunford confirmed in a news conference a few hours after the missiles hit targets in Damascus and Homs that this was a “one-time shot” adventure.

They acknowledged the strikes were designed to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities without killing civilians or the many foreign fighters in Syria’s multi-sided civil war, particularly those from Russia.

“We specifically identified these targets to mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved,” Dunford told reporters, adding that the US military had advised Russia of airspace that would be used in the strikes but did not “pre-notify them”.

Mattis acknowledged that the United States waged the attacks only with conclusive evidence that chlorine gas was used in the alleged 7 April attack in Syria against the rebel stronghold of Douma close to the capital Damascus.

Syria and Russia strongly denied any chemical weapons were used, arguing that such charges made no sense as the Islamist fighters in Douma were on the verge of collapse and were negotiating to evacuate the town.

Russian and Syrian officials went as far as to claim that the images the world saw of dead bodies piled on top of each other with foam coming out of their mouths were staged by the Syrian opposition groups and even British intelligence.

Britain, the United States and several key European countries took part in the worst ever campaign of expelling diplomats after London claimed Moscow had been involved in poisoning a former Russian spy who was living in the UK using a chemical agent.

Mattis also characterised the strikes on early Saturday as more significant than the one waged last year, saying double the number of weapons were used this time. “We were very precise and proportionate,” Mattis said. “But at the same time, it was a heavy strike.”

Last year, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from the guided-missile destroyers USS Porter and the USS Ross struck Syria’s Shayrat air base to retaliate against another alleged chemical attack by the Syrian army in Khan Shaykhoun.

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans in Congress were divided in their support for the American, British and French strikes.

Even advocates of a more aggressive approach towards Syria, Russia and Iran said the attacks would mean little in the long run without a clear and comprehensive approach.

US lawmakers were also clearly confused by Trump’s contradictory statements on Syria, one day calling for the removal of 2,000 US troops based in the north to provide support for Kurdish militias fighting against the Islamic State (IS) group and then a day later warning of a possible confrontation against Russia and “animal Assad”.

“The president needs to lay out our goals, not just with regard to IS, but also the ongoing conflict in Syria and malign Russian and Iranian influence in the region,” said John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Air strikes disconnected from a broader strategy may be necessary, but they alone will not achieve US objectives in the Middle East,” he added.

Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he expected the Trump administration to begin clarifying its views. “Military force cannot be the only means of responding to these atrocities,” he said.

Democrats, meanwhile, offered narrower praise, with some denouncing the strikes as illegal. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, described “a pinpointed, limited action” as “appropriate” but warned the United States against being drawn into a larger war with the Syrian government.

Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he held little hope that the administration would succeed in deterring Syria from using chemical weapons.

“A year ago when our military struck targets in Syria in response to another chemical weapons attack, I warned that such an action with no strategy to back it up would fail,” he said. “Tonight’s announcement seems like history repeating itself, and there’s no reason to expect a different result absent a broader Syria strategy.”

Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, who sits on both the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, said that Trump had seriously erred in not seeking Congress’s consent.

“President Trump’s decision to launch air strikes against the Syrian government without Congress’s approval is illegal and – absent a broader strategy – it’s reckless,” he said. “Today, it’s a strike on Syria – what’s going to stop him from bombing Iran or North Korea next?”

Failures to speak the same language on Syria among members of the Trump administration also surfaced on Monday after the US president rejected, for now at least, a fresh round of sanctions set to be imposed against Russia.

The president’s ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had announced on Sunday that the administration would place sanctions on Russian companies found to be assisting Syria’s chemical weapons programme.

The sanctions were listed as further punishment over Russia’s support for the Syrian president.

But the White House contradicted her on Monday, saying that Trump had not approved additional measures. “We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in a statement.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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