Syria: How the agendas of three presidents are being played out in one warzone
- Credit: PA Wire/PA Images
Impulse, calculation and an ever-deepening blood bath
Motivation, motivation, motivation. Words to keep repeating as questions in search of an educated answer to the new cold war crisis triggered by the Khan Sheikhoun sarin gas horror and President Trump's retaliatory Tomahawk cruise missile blitz.
Let's start by being fair to Donald Trump. Those of us who knew and interviewed him when thoughts of the presidency were merely a 'twinkle in the eye' of a narcissistic and controversial Big Apple property tycoon, were always aware of how a powerful media image could swiftly move him to rage or tears... Even when it didn't involve The Donald himself.
So, for once, I don't doubt the sincerity of his quivering-lipped 'beautiful babies, children of God… cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack' rhetoric as the primary presidential motive behind America's response against the Assad regime airbase suspected of delivering the deadly nerve gas strike that slaughtered at least 80 men, women and children.
It was, inevitably, the visceral reaction of a president obsessed by rolling news channel footage. And I don't doubt either the whispers on Capitol Hill that Trump's influential daughter Ivanka (whose own Twitter account went into emotional outrage overdrive) fed significantly into her father's decision.
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That said, I don't doubt either that other important and more cynical motivational factors were at play. Trump, a man who once told me he'd become the world's biggest player in the casino business and the big fight promotion arena, was also gambling on cashing in on western revulsion over the carnage at Khan Sheikhoun as a personal PR weapon.
Could it reverse his dire poll ratings, the lowest ever for a US president so soon into his term of office?
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Could it derail, or at least take the heat out of, those various investigations into the 'Russian Connection' and what Team Trump knew about Putin's cyberspace interference in the US election that took him into the White House? Maybe even remove any future possibility of impeachment?
Could it more than compensate for the humiliating defeat inflicted on him over 'Obamacare' reform?
Could it 'trump' those Capitol Hill forces – including nervous Republicans – lining up to thwart his controversial tax reform plans that critics depict as a 'gift to America's richest'?
To some extent The Donald's gamble is paying off. In the short term, at least. Western democracies, including governments far more cynical about the Trump presidency than the poodle-ish Brexit-consumed one led by Theresa May, have largely rallied behind his decision to launch those Tomahawks.
Much of America's Trump-averse mainstream media, including his arch 'fake news' target CNN, have felt obliged to do the same, with an understandable measure of confusion over what comes next, and incredulity at their neophyte president's complete volte face over Syria.
But none of us should really be that surprised. The one great consistency about Donald Trump, long before he set his sights on the White House as the ultimate ego trip, has always been: INCONSISTENCY. In big, bold capitals.
From the moment his Twitter feed erupted in almost biblical fury as those harrowing, horrific pictures of dead and dying children, foaming at the mouth in a chemical hell, emerged onscreen, online and in print, you knew that Trump was poised to effectively say 'to hell with consistency'.
Gone faster than the speed of a Tomahawk missile was Trump's history of verbal assaults on the Obama administration's increased support for Syrian rebels that followed another Assad-suspected chemical attack that killed over 1,00 civilians.
Gone was the campaign trail monstering of Hillary Clinton as a 'warmonger' hellbent on dragging America into the Syrian conflict. Forgotten, seemingly, were those famous Trump tweets like 'We should stay the hell out of Syria'….'Do NOT attack Syria, fix USA!' or, most notably, aimed at Obama in 2013, 'The President must get congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!'. This was the spectacular opposite of President Trump's own unilateral action last week ahead of any congressional debate or even incontrovertible proof that the Assad regime was responsible.
But, again, none of that should come as a surprise, given that we're talking about an impulsive, apprentice president presiding over a feuding, fighting, factional, nepotistic White House.
In many ways, we should probably be grateful that Trump's determination to take military action turned out (so far, anyway) to be on a measured scale, thanks to the cautionary input of the more sophisticated voices in the administration like Defence Secretary General James Mattis and National Security Adviser, Lt-General HR McMaster.
No doubt either that Mattis and McMaster saw, in Trump's determination, a timely opportunity to fire a warning shot over what they (rightly) perceive as a much greater direct threat to US security: North Korea and its unhinged, nuclear-armed young dictator Kim Jong Un.
With Xi Jinping attending a high-profile summit with Trump at his ostentatious Florida 'White House' at Mar-a-Lago just as the missiles were unleashed, they were clearly gambling it would concentrate the Chinese leader's mind over US calls for him to rein-in his dangerous, dependent neighbour before America sends missiles heading in Pyongyang's direction.
Paradoxically, how much control Moscow and Beijing can exert over their unpredictable client states could in turn prove the check and balance key to controlling the most unpredictable occupant of the White House in modern times. On such a delicate balancing act could global peace and security hinge.
Hopefully, although a diplomatic greenhorn, it may be that US Secretary of State and former Exxon Mobil chairman Rex Tillerson, who travelled to Moscow this week for talks with senior Russian officials can gradually defuse the US/Russia crisis. And, although Putin himself wasn't officially involved in the talks, Tillerson's well-known familiarity with the Russian leader wouldn't discount some degree of unofficial contact behind the scenes.
No easy task, true, with the tough words emanating out of the Kremlin and Tehran threatening military retaliation if Trump repeats more missile strikes against their ally Assad or tries to impose a 'no fly' zone over Syria, raising the risk of Russian military aircraft being hit by US firepower.
Inside the US state department, however, some analysts are convinced that, while Putin cannot afford to lose face in the short-term, last week's events may be the key to weakening his support for Assad. It's a theory based on the suspicion that the Kremlin were not consulted in advance of the sarin-raid on Khan Sheikhoun; a scenario that would make a mockery of Putin's claim to a diplomatic coup in brokering the 2013 deal in which Assad supposedly surrendered his chemical weaponry.
One US analyst put it to me this way: 'It's quite conceivable that Assad may have played Putin for a fool. In which case, he could have signed his own death warrant down the line.'
While Russia does need to stand by him for now, the endgame could be very different. So why did Assad take the risk?
'Well, he might be winning the Syrian civil war with Russian and Iranian support power, but his own military are war weary, demoralised and complete victory is still a long way away. With Russia behind him and a US president apparently not interested in regime change or getting involved militarily, he probably calculated he could get away with it with only howls of protest from international opinion but no real punishment.
'In some ways, Assad might mistakenly see chemical weapons the way the US saw the atomic bomb attacks against Japan – the quickest way to shorten a war that was taking too long to win and costing you too many casualties of your own.' Meanwhile Trump's Syrian U-turn is producing some interesting — and, (whisper it) potentially positive – results on the domestic casualty front. Suddenly the president's chief of staff and Alt-Right hero Steve Bannon and his Breitbart cohorts are no longer calling the shots. Whether that's a temporary or long-term situation could – Russia Connection inquiries apart – define the destiny of the Trump presidency.
Not only was Bannon, the architect of Trump's election-winning 'America First' mantra, unceremoniously removed from the National Security Council on the eve of the missile strike against Syria, but he appeared as an isolated back-of-the-room character in the subsequent post-event photo opps released to the media.
By the same token, it is among those who voted for Trump on the basis of his core isolationist support base that the shock and hostility over his Syrian intervention is coming, rather than America's liberal wing.
In the case of Bannon, it also represents a victory for an alliance between his increasingly influential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner (husband of Ivanka) and a triumvirate of McMaster, Mattis and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, a traditional Republican party factotum resentful of Bannon's influence.
It's an open secret that McMaster and Mattis briefed against the wisdom of giving Bannon the NSA seat he craved in the first place. While Kushner, who apparently forged close ties with Bannon during the campaign, has reportedly told confidants that, although an 'asset' in winning the White House, he is a 'liability' now they have it. For his part, Bannon has been telling his allies that Kushner is a 'trumped up kid and a liberal Democrat globalist in disguise'.
For those of us of a strong anti-Brexit persuasion, there has been, of late, a measure of pleasure in the spectacle of Nigel Farage, Paul Nuttall, and the rest of the UKIP tendency, looking shell-shocked victims of their 'hero' Trump's 'betrayal'.
But, lest we forget amid all the headline-dominating intrigue and diplomatic turmoil, some stark statistics and sharp contradictions loom larger than ever now.
With mixed messages emerging from Washington on whether or not this was a one-off symbolic strike against Assad, the grim fact remains that it won't offer much in the way of meaningful comfort to those suffering in the tortured slaughterhouse of Syria.
After the White House's initial euphoria and triumphalism, the sobering statistics that really count are that far more Syrian civilians still die from Assad's conventional weaponry than from chemical attacks. Around 400,000 since the civil war began, with nearly five million fleeing their homes as refugees.
Indeed the fatalities and mutilations inflicted by those 'conventional' harbingers of doom and destruction produce images more horrific and too gruesome to be featured in the mainstream media. Unlike those dead but still recognisable 'beautiful babies' that so stirred The Donald and his daughter in the silent, shaming, sarin-induced carnage of Khan Sheikhoun.
And that's an ongoing tragedy of savage, senseless slaughter that certainly won't be ended by Trump's emotion-charged volte face or the PR-influenced order to send those 59 Tomahawks hurtling through space as an all too instant symbol of presidential potency.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster and former Sunday Mirror editor and Mirror Group Bureau Chief
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