The U.S. raid has shifted attention to the Syrian regime. There is a suspicion that all main players may be involved in a secret plan to reduce Bashar Assad’s power. Hopefully, they will have clear ideas on the (inevitable) partition of Syria, so that the country’s future will not be a tragic adventure like the aftermaths of Saddam and Gadhafi.
Despite their words, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will be forced to cooperate on Syria. In a paradox, from now on they will have to work together even more than before.
The Kremlin’s czar has “deplored” the “attack on a sovereign state,” a state of which he is an ally.
He has called for a U.N. Security Council meeting to “stigmatize” America’s raid against the base from which aircraft may have carried out the chemical attack (we have to say “may have,” as the regime keeps denying this and no independent inquiry has been conducted to validate this thesis).
Whatever the truth is, it has now been overtaken by events. The true question is, what is going to happen to this unlucky country now enduring its seventh year of war? Before becoming president, Donald Trump had praised a reluctant Obama who, after having drawn a “red line” that Bashar Assad abundantly crossed, still decided not to attack Damascus.
The billionaire president had also warned that the Islamic State was the real enemy, not the Alawite regime. Why then has he made such a spectacular U-turn? In the course of few months, we have become accustomed to his sudden changes of opinion. This time, his about-face has devastating consequences because it concerns the use of weapons in the hottest area in the world.
The simplest, most popular interpretation is that Trump was so shocked by the pictures of the dead children that a moral impulse to defend Western values suddenly made him decide to carry out the operation. He did not consult Congress over this (it is not mandatory). He only warned the EU and Russia at the last minute. Trump the resolute. Trump the cowboy who had promised disengagement, an isolationist withdrawal, and has now abruptly crowned himself king of the jungle instead. All of this at the cost of making an enemy out of Moscow and starting a duel between superpowers, like in the old days.
This is a linear interpretation. However, things may be more complicated. During the last days of the Obama administration, as well as in the early days of the new era, America had somewhat abandoned the playing field. The U.S., having achieved energy self-sufficiency and no longer considering the region strategically important, apparently meant to wash its hands of the Middle East.
Two substitutes took over the role of main players after reaching a new and surprising alliance: Putin, of course, and Istanbul’s sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The former because Syria has always been indispensable to him in the Middle East. The latter because he is concerned about his bitter enemies, the Syrian Kurds, earning a good reputation through their victories against the Islamic State group. Sitting at that negotiating table was therefore fundamental for him, even though he had to swallow the bitter pill of aiding Bashar Assad, whom he had wanted to depose for a long time.
It is, however, difficult to resist that imperial reflex that must tempt almost all those who make it to the White House. The first step toward a change of strategy consisted in sending the Marines, boots on the ground, to take part in the offensive against Raqqa, the “capital city” of caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in order to destroy the Islamic State group once and for all.
A surprising move considering the earlier statements, but it still fit what seemed to be a shared position: Proclaiming jihadis to be the worst nightmare, concentrating on them and focusing on Syria’s future later.
The raid instead objectively weakened Assad, shifted attention to the regime and left the caliph, at least temporarily, out of the international spotlight. Erdogan was the first to point the finger at Assad over the gas massacre. His statement seems jarring, not because he does not mean it (he always has) but rather because his alliance with Putin should have dissuaded him from speaking out about it. Putin himself displayed the expected formal reaction, almost out of obligation, and nothing else, to the point where it raises the suspicion of all main players being involved in a secret plan. Assad got back in the saddle after having reached the ragged edge with over half of his country under occupation. Reducing his power was Turkey’s objective as well as America’s, maybe even Russia’s, eventually, in case of a realignment of the area, which at this point will have to take into account Erdogan’s influence, no matter who reigns over Damascus.
If America wants to sit at the negotiating table for this new, agreed upon division of power, so much the better (notice the complete and baffling absence of an increasingly subordinate Europe).
It matters little whether one or the other hypothesis is true (a raid decided either against Russia’s wishes or without Russia’s opposition). Trump and Putin are destined not only to talk to each other, but also to imagine scenarios together for the aftermath of a war that is lasting too long, even by Middle Eastern standards.
During this discussion, they will have to keep in mind that the Islamic State group is always first on the list of threats (Putin has recently assessed its threat in St. Petersburg) and that it will be necessary to reach a compromise on Syria’s (inevitable) partition as well as on the future of Damascus’ dictator. Hopefully they will have clear ideas concerning this aftermath, so that it will not turn out like the aftermaths of Saddam and Gadhafi.