Syrian bombing: US and Russia 'one step away from combat'



US. President Donald Trump delivers a statement about missile strikes on a Syrian airfield.
REUTERS
US. President Donald Trump delivers a statement about missile strikes on a Syrian airfield.

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REUTERS
Russia, Syria spar with US at UN Security Council over air strikes
REUTERS
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, Russia's Vladimir Safronkov and Deputy Ambassador Mounzer Mounzer of Syria trade barbs in a Security Council meeting over the US cruise missile strikes in Syria.

And in contradicting his every tweet on the madness of Washington being drawn into the Syrian civil war, Thursday's missile barrage raises as many questions as it triggers alarms.
War is theatre – and in this case, audience reaction and the reviews are unsettling.
A woman holds a sign that reads "No to war, stop attack on Syria, we are Syria" during a protest in front of the U.S. ...
DAVID MERCADO
A woman holds a sign that reads "No to war, stop attack on Syria, we are Syria" during a protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia.
Washington is unbowed. Describing the attack as "a measured step", US UN ambassador Nikki Haley warned a Security Council meeting on Friday: "We are prepared to do more, but we hope that would not be necessary." Blasting Syria's sponsors Russia and Iran, she drew a new red line: "Bashar al-Assad must never use chemical weapons again".
Moscow is furious. On Facebook, Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev declared the relationship with Washington to be "completely ruined" and warned that the two countries were just one step away from combat.
And Moscow is doing something about it. Already a dangerous place, the Syrian airspace in which the US and Russian air forces are fighting different wars, became more risky with the Kremlin shutting down a risk-minimising channel, through which both air forces swapped information on their air movements, and "significantly increasing" the risk of confrontation.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a bilateral meeting with ...
REUTERS
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Moscow promised too to bolster Syria's air defences to "protect the most sensitive Syrian infrastructure facilities". But that prompted analysts to observed that despite a 60 to 90-minute warning of Thursday's attack, Moscow did not activate its own sophisticated missile defence systems in Syria against the incoming American salvo.
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The Chinese are saying little, but no doubt are fuming. Beijing has backed Syria by joining Russia in thwarting action against it in the UN Security Council, and it won't take lightly how the timing of Trump's missile strike overshadowed a highly orchestrated Florida meeting between Trump and President Xi Jinping, or the provocative message it sent.
This is what Washington can do when Moscow won't help in Syria, and maybe the US will have to do a version of it in North Korea, if Beijing won't help in resolving that crisis.
A combination image released by the U.S. Department of Defense which they say shows the impact crater associated with ...
US DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE
A combination image released by the U.S. Department of Defense which they say shows the impact crater associated with April 4, 2017 Chemical Weapons Allegation released after U.S. cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7.
This American missile assault on Syria needs to be kept in perspective. A bit of shock and awe, to be sure, but symbolism has been devalued in a war in which just one or two in more than 100 chemical attacks have registered in the international consciousness.  And the reality is that damage to a single air base and the loss of less than a dozen aircraft are unlikely to greatly change the dynamic of the conflict.
Former Bush foreign adviser Eliot Cohen was underwhelmed. "Better than nothing. How much better than nothing is not clear, until you know what damage is done [but] for this kind of thing to be effective, it really has to hurt the Syrian regime - and one cannot be sure whether or not it has."
The rub, war theorists argue, is that a leader like Syria's Bashar al-Assad, who has so willfully ignored international pleas for restraint, is unlikely to be any less brutal in how he deals with his people because Trump launched what appears to have been a single salvo, or that Moscow and Tehran might be less willing to support him.
People participate in a demonstration against the recent U.S. strike in Syria, in New York.
STEPHANIE KEITH/REUTERS
People participate in a demonstration against the recent U.S. strike in Syria, in New York.
The new variable is the Trump summersault. In a matter of hours a seemingly cold-hearted, uncaring, isolationist, inward-looking president has become a global humanitarian who will do... what?
Can Trump now parse the plight of the millions of other victims of this war as any less deserving than the victims of this one attack by Assad? Can moral clarity be put back in a drawer? And if the answer here is 'yes', how will it be interpreted in Moscow and Damascus?
There's already a sense of irritation in Team Trump that the attacks were an emotional response to the horror of the chemical attacks.
US President Donald Trump welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago state in Palm Beach on Friday.
CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERS
US President Donald Trump welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago state in Palm Beach on Friday.
"I do not view it as an emotional reaction at all," US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters. After former president Barack Obama's failure to act when Assad had crossed a famous red line in 2013, Trump had decided that the US "could not yet again turn away, turn a blind eye".
But Assad was emboldened as much by Trump's blind eye, as by the humanitarian indifference in Tillerson's observation only days earlier that it was up to the Syrian people to decide Assad's fate – as though they might be able to conduct an Iowa-style caucus or a Virginia primary amidst the carnage of war.
And now that the Syrian people have Trump's attention, what will the President do?
Antony Blinken, a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, believes that Trump has leverage now and that he must use it, not just to ensure that there are no more chemical attacks, but also to win a ceasefire and a transition of power by which Syrians would see the back of Assad – and at the same time, keep the military pressure on Islamic State.
But there's a danger now that Trump has had this early taste of war – mission creep. There are quibbles in Congress about his failure to seek its authority, but there's also broad political and media support for his missile strike and given Trump's desperate need for approval, he'll be tempted to do more.
"If Mr Assad persists in the use of chemical or biological weapons, it will take extraordinary discipline to avoid falling into an escalation trap that leads from justified punitive strikes to a broader, and riskier, US intervention," Blinken writes in The New York Times.
"After all, American involvement in Libya, which I advocated, began as an effort to protect civilians from violence by the government of Muammar [Gaddafi] el-Qaddafi. But it ended in regime change. Owning Syria would be exponentially more challenging than our already fraught responsibility for post-Qaddafi Libya."
Candidate Trump had no qualms about leaving Syria for other to sort out – even Russia. He wanted to end the waste of trillions of US taxpayer dollars in messing in Middle Eastern conflicts and in 2013, he pleaded with Obama not to launch "stupid" airstrikes to punish Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people. His only interest was the war against IS and if Assad was to survive that, well – tough.
The other players in the conflict will influence the Trump reckoning. Tillerson, who on Thursday accused Moscow either of complicity in Assad's chemical attack or incompetence in stopping it, will get a better feel for the Russian response at meetings in Moscow next week than is conveyed in the Kremlin's rhetoric this week.
But there is speculation that after all this week's noise, Moscow will simply factor in the missile strikes as just one more incident by the other side in geopolitical head-butting that is the Syrian conflict.
"There won't be any tangible reaction; this was a one-off strike," Vladimir Frolov, a Russian foreign affairs analyst said. Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian military, seemed to agree, writing in an online commentary: "Moscow might not like Washington's response, but nor was it willing to stand in the way of it – that is a heartening sign of realism."
Does this mean that Moscow will somehow relinquish any of its influence in Syria – hardly?
Does it make the war against IS more challenging – yes, if a diminished Assad leaves a vacuum in which IS and other extremists might thrive?
Is there a better prospect for a ceasefire in Syrian in the wake of Trump's attack – no.
Trump expressed a wish – "end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types" – but what is his plan for Syria?
Haley's "we'll do more" threat at the UN sat awkwardly with a more cautious appraisal of the attack on Thursday by Tillerson: "I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate [the attack] to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There has been no change in that status."
Save for the war on IS, Trump has studiously ignored the rest of the Syrian conflict, even slamming closed the US door to refugees, prompting this from Virginia Senator Mark Warner: "[But] last night's strike was aimed at a different objective. President Trump needs to articulate a coherent strategy for dealing with this complex conflict, because the consequences of a misstep are grave."
When former presidential candidate and secretary of state Hillary Clinton joined the fray, she egged Trump on, demanding that the President take out the entire Syrian air force.
"That air force is the cause of most of these civilian deaths as we have seen over the years and as we saw again in the last few days," Clinton said on Friday.
Trump is taking a huge gamble. What was left of his wish for rapprochement with Moscow has been battered; to the extent that there is popular criticism of the attack, much of it is coming from his most ardent fringe-dweller followers; and, despite his endless rhetoric, he might just have delivered the US to the threshold of another Middle East war.
It's all part of the amazing contradiction of Trump. Skeptics will says that demolition, death and dislocation will continue apace in Syria.
And cynics will wonder about motivation, the President's historically rotten ratings and a Trump tweet back in October 2012, in which he said: "Now that Obama's poll numbers are in tailspin – watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate."
But Trump has sent a signal to the world – he's got a feel for American military power and he'll turn on a dime to use it.
Remember what he said of Syria on Wednesday: "I now have responsibility, and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly, I will tell you that - it is now my responsibility."
Yup – it might be a pile of rubble, but it's a country called Syria and Trump's name is emblazoned on it.


 Source:  PAUL MCGEOUGH , Sydney Morning Herald - STUFF
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