On April 7, the U.S. used 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to attack a Syrian government military air base. With such a fierce military strike against the Assad regime, what was Washington’s intention?
Attacking Syria was a victory for establishment Republicans. During his second term, Barack Obama focused American strategic resources on the Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy, while he comprehensively contracted out resources in the Middle East, even stagnating on resources with respect to the Syrian civil war and fighting the Islamic State. Vladimir Putin seized this strategic opportunity with a predominant involvement in the Syrian civil war. He not only took the initiative with Middle East affairs, but he also shifted the focus of the game between Russia and the West, from Ukraine to the Middle East, thus effectively exposing the contradiction of the Middle East issue between the U.S. and Europe, weakening their alliance against his country. Evidently, establishment Republicans were extremely dissatisfied with Obama’s “weakness” toward the Middle East issue. They have been using their profound influence on the U.S. military and security matters to actively promote the U.S.’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and military operations against the Islamic State group.
And since his election, Donald Trump has been even more repressive toward the establishment’s stance on the Middle East than Obama. The fundamental reason is that Trump and former national security advisor Michael Flynn intended to seek cooperation with Russia to jointly combat terrorist forces, thereby creating an opening for improved Russia-U.S. relations. This is something that is absolutely unacceptable to the establishment.
Therefore, the establishment spared no effort to fight Trump on his policy toward Russia, attempting to “manage” this untamable president. The establishment first forced Flynn to resign by leaking, through the FBI, a telephone recording of him with the Russian ambassador, thus ushering in Gen. H. R. McMaster, who has had close ties with the establishment, as national security advisor. They then planned to target Trump’s subordinates – his “Big Four:” Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, and national security advisor H. R. McMaster – by joining forces to pressure Trump’s chief strategy consultants to leave the National Security Council. Subsequently, seizing upon the allegation of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, the establishment suggested to Trump’s own security and foreign policy teams that they launch a military strike against Syria. Under these circumstances, Trump had no choice but to narrow down McMaster’s three combat plans to one, and order an attack on Syria.
In fact, Russia was the real target of the U.S. bombing in Syria, with the goal of taking back the initiative on Middle East affairs from Putin. Russia showed no weakness, immediately expressing its anger at the U.S. attack and even threatening to no longer provide security to Americans in Syria. In this way, the establishment Republicans completely dispelled the notion that Trump had originally intended to repair Russia-U.S. relations, blocking the door against any future attempts to improve the relationship.
At the same time, the attack on Syria put pressure on Iran. In fact, the Syrian civil war is a political conflict between Muslim Shiites and Sunnis, with Iran firmly supporting the same Shiite Assad regime as Russia. It was Russia’s suppression strategy in the air and Iran’s strong support on land that led to the reversal of the civil war situation, with the Assad regime turning from defense to offense. The U.S. attack on Syria posed more of a threat to Iran’s ground fighting than to Russia. This is the reason Iran issued a severe condemnation after the attack.
The more long-term significance of a military strike against the Assad regime is that it will help to reverse the Iran nuclear deal and restart the tradition of U.S. leadership in Middle East affairs. Although the Obama administration’s effort to sign the nuclear deal with Iran had seemingly resolved Iran’s potential “nuclear threat,” it conflicted with the U.S.’s stance on toppling the Assad regime. As a result, the Iran nuclear deal not only infuriated establishment Republicans, but also offended the two most important allies in the Middle East: Israel and Saudi Arabia. Curbing Iran was the top item of national interest for both Israel and Saudi Arabia. The attack on Syria was not only in line with the establishment’s effort to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, but also allowed the U.S. to once again stand on the same side as Israel and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.
In short, the attack on Syria is the result of a long-term plan by establishment Republicans. The establishment was able to force Trump into submission before his first critical foreign policy decision and reverse Trump’s initial intention of repairing Russia-U.S. relations, while suppressing Iran to regain the support of traditional allies in the Middle East. Evidently, the establishment is powerful and ruthless. This is an indication that the U.S. will take a dominant position in its involvement in the Middle East, with the Syrian civil war as the main focus, as it tries to regain authority over Middle East affairs from Russia. This change has not only a significant impact on the Russia-U.S. relationship and the Middle East situation, but also far-reaching domestic and foreign significance for the future of the Trump administration.