Known unknown

Three goals for a U.S. attack on Syria

North America, Middle East and North Africa

The U.S. attack on the Syrian air base of Sharyat was mostly symbolic. Last night 59 tomahawk missiles, launched from destroyers Ross and Porter in the Eastern Mediterranean, struck the military facility from which on April 4 the Damascus regime purportedly carried out a gruesome chemical attack on the village of Khan Sheikhun, next to Idlib, in a region still controlled by rebels and jihadists. Reportedly, the U.S. strike severely damaged Sharyat’s facilities, but didn’t destroy the base’s airstrip. The Pentagon warned both Russians and Syrians of the operation beforehand, as to minimize collateral damage, although four Syrian soldiers were killed in the attack.

More importantly, the American offensive doesn’t signal a strategic shift. Once the strike was over, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained that the White House hasn’t changed its policy toward Syria and will work to oust President Bashar al-Assad through negotiations.

However, Trump’s sudden interventionism serves at least three tactical purposes. First, it aims to mark discontinuity with Obama’s predictability which, according to Trump and the U.S. defense and security apparatus, in the past years greatly harmed America’s credibility. It is no accident that Trump opted to act on the very red line regarding the use of chemical weapons which in 2013 Obama left famously unpunished.

Second, it serves to strengthen America’s negotiating power and to send a strong message to the Chinese, the Russians and the Iranians by reminding them that the U.S. is the only superpower able to establish the rules of the game. Putin felt highly humiliated as he proved unable to hinder America’s retaliation, while the military gap between the two (former) archenemies blatantly showed itself once more. Likewise, the U.S. strike greatly embarrassed China’s president Xi Jinping who happened to be on American soil for a series of meetings with Donald Trump, while being an attempt to prod Beijing to act forcefully in order to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program.

Third, as MacroGeo predicted in its first known unknown, the White House used the attack to (temporarily) obtain some room for maneuver from U.S. federal agencies. Being aware that a president harness enough power only when at war, by exploiting the ensuing emotivism of the American public, an embattled Trump was desperate to act as commander-in-chief for one night.

It is also interesting to note how, notwithstanding his much touted anti-imperial nature, Trump resorted to the rhetoric of America’s exceptionalism when announcing the strike. «God bless America and the entire world», he proclaimed. Only a few weeks after he had vowed, quite stridently, to be «only the president of the United States and not of the world».

Now the White House is telling both allies and enemies that it does not intend to conduct additional air strikes on Syria. Likely, the situation won’t escalate, as the Americans still consider Assad to be the lesser evil when compared to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. Unless Turkey’s and Saudi Arabia’s proxies prove to be deft enough as to carry out false flag operations aimed at drawing the U.S. more into the fray. Then, in the next weeks red lines might apparently be crossed again by the Al Assad’s regime, forcing Trump to be true to his word once more.