Saturday 15 April 2017

Action At Last

The decision by US President Donald Trump to launch an attack in Syria following the recent chemical weapons attack has been widely welcomed by Israelis.  It is also a welcome change from the policy that was pursued by the US during the presidency of Barack Obama.  Finally, the free world has a leader who is prepared to take action rather than utter words.

Last Friday, President Trump really showed what he is made of.  Following the horrendous chemical weapons attack that was carried out earlier last week by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against his own people, Trump took a few days to consider the situation and gather the required evidence before striking in retaliation.  The retaliation was not against a violation of any US interest in particular.  The retaliation was rather against the violation of innocent women and children, and against the unacceptable use of chemical weapons.

Over the past few years, the world became used to the Obama style of doing things.  Obama threatened, but never made good on his threats.  So, it comes as no surprise that Assad gambled on the US not responding to this chemical attack.  After all, previous chemical attacks went unanswered.  In fact, it was the deal that was struck during Obama's presidency in 2013, that enabled this chemical attack.  When Obama discovered the extent of the stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons, he decided to cut Assad some slack and allow him a way to diplomatically and elegantly dispose of them.  The deal struck with Syria by negotiation between the USA and Russia involved the dismantling of no fewer than 12 chemical weapons productions facilities, numerous storage locations, a research and development facility and the destruction of thousands of tons of chemical agents.

But, under the noses of the international supervisors, and with the tacit knowledge of Obama and other members of the international community, Assad succeeded in retaining some of these chemical weapons for himself.  It was one of the worst-kept secrets in the Middle East.  The Israeli intelligence community believed that the Assad government retained a "residual" chemical stockpile of somewhere between several hundred kilograms to several tons of chemical weapons, about 1% of its original stockpile.  Obama's reaction was fairly predictable.  He turned a blind eye.  Last week's Sarin attack by Assad is the public evidence of Obama's failed policy.

In taking action in the way that he did, Trump sent out a number of very important messages.  The first was a very clear message to Assad and his army.  This US president will not tolerate bully-boy tactics being employed against innocent women and children, even if he is still in the honeymoon period of his presidency.  And he will not tolerate the use of illegal chemical weapons, even if his predecessor was prepared to turn a blind eye to this.

The second message was sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin.  He has been Assad's patron for a number of years.  Initially, this support was in the form of supplying weapons and vetoing resolutions against Assad at the UN Security Council.  While this support has continued, it has also escalated to include Russian boots on the ground in Syria and Russian warplanes in Syrian air space.  Even though Trump was determined to forge a closer link with Putin when he first entered office, the message to Putin is that everything has changed.  Even Russian support, and the possibility of damaging US relations with Russia will not prevent Trump from taking action against Assad.

The third message was sent to other rogue nations of the world, including Iran and North Korea.  In a similar way to how the deal with Syria was struck, Obama also struck a deal with Iran.  This deal involved nuclear weapons rather than Syria's chemical weapons.  The stakes were much higher, but the lack of backbone on Obama's part was exactly the same.  He decided to strike the deal with Iran despite the obvious signs that Iran was pulling the wool over the eyes of the countries signing the deal.  Despite Obama's attempts to placate Israel and other detractors of the agreement, its blaring shortcomings were obvious to anybody with a mediocre understanding of the situation.  Trump, however, sends a completely different message.  He has started his time in office by questioning the logic of the deal with Iran.  And the attack against the Syrian forces sends an even stronger message that Trump will not tolerate any deception or aggression on the part of Iran, and also North Korea.

For the Israeli government, the intervention is welcome.  Israel is typically a country for whom actions speak louder than words, even if the actions are frequently very quietly done.  It is inconceivable that the Jewish state could idly watch from the sidelines when chemicals are being used to kill innocent women and children.  The memory of the world standing idly by and watching during the Holocaust is still too fresh in our minds.  It is a great dilemma about how to respond to a situation like the chemical attack in Syria.  On the one hand, Israel would wish to respond with force to the use of chemical weapons.  Doing so would, however, seemingly play into Syria's hands, and immediately embroil Israel in the war in Syria.  Given the history of the two countries and the way in which friendships line up, this could potentially involve Iran, Syria and the USA very quickly indeed.  This would escalate to a regional conflict, and perhaps even result in a conflict that goes beyond the regional borders.

Trump's strong message shows decisive leadership, and finally a willingness to confront rogue states head-on.  This is welcome.  While debates and condemnations at the UN and other forums may have their place, action on the ground sends a much stronger and more serious message.   And his action also saved Israel from, once again, having to respond in a way that will not result in a war involving multiple countries.

We watch with bated breath to see how things develop with Iran.