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Much of the chaos swirling around Donald Trump has been linked to new media – Russian trolls interfering in the 2016 US presidential elections, sexual predator Julian Assange vomiting out thousands of confidential emails to damage Trump’s election rival and the West in general, ultra-smug Cambridge Analytica raping Facebook’s dodgily-acquired personal information about scores of millions of people to help the Trump campaign.
Trump and his crew have worked in parallel, if not yet provenly in collusion, with Moscow’s massive disinformation machine to dispel, confuse and discredit traditional notions of truth. He has taught his ill-educated supporters that 2+2 can equal five or 500 or any number he chooses. So it’s fitting that Trump has used deranged-sounding tweets to announce missile strikes against the Syrian Government – which have brought the US and Russia closer to direct confrontation since than any time since the Cuba missile crisis of 1962.
Trump has used the embarrassingly crude language of a pub loudmouth to promise punishment for Syria, Russia and Iran for the Damascus government’s use last weekend of chemical weapons that killed dozens of civilians, including many children, and affected some 500 people in what had been the rebel-held area of Douma.
The US should indeed make it clear to Syria and its savage patrons, Russia and Iran, that they must face severe penalties for the latest atrocity. But by declaring his threats via tweet Trump has telegraphed his intentions in a way that he repeatedly mocked his predecessor, Barack Obama, for surrendering the element of surprise in military actions.
Such bald announcements have boxed in Trump and left him with no diplomatic wriggle-room. After all he also ridiculed Obama for failing to follow through on warnings to punish Syrian dictator Bashar Hafez al-Assad for deploying chemical weapons against his own people. Now Trump knows his core redneck supporters will label him a wimp if he backs down from a strike against Syria.
The problem is that a blustering Russia has also trapped itself by aggressive rhetoric threatening not only to shoot down US missiles but to launch attacks at the ships and bases where they were launched. So any solution without losing face is a tall order.
Moscow always reacts with high indignation when accused of bad behavior. Even though, as with the Salisbury nerve agent attack, it wants those on the receiving end to know Russia was responsible and to fear her. But the Kremlin was offended by London’s robust response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil and had not anticipated the extensive international support for Britain.
In part the UK and France’s stated willingness to take part in joint action against Syria is because of Russia’s actions in Salisbury. The poisoning of hundreds of Syrian civilians was almost a grotesquely amplified version of the Salisbury outrage. It’s intent was to say “we can do whatever we want and you can’t stop us.”
As I’m writing this the lights are on in many more Pentagon offices than usual on a weekday night and military resources are being repositioned. America, as always, is the biggest player but Britain is moving submarines, surface vessels and planes into the region and France has air bases in Jordan and the united Arab Emirates.
By the time this is published the US, UK and France may already have raided Syrian targets. But where that leads is impossible to predict. Last year the US, acting alone, fired a salvo of cruise missiles at a Syrian air base after Damascus used chemical weapons against civilians. The attack produced few casualties and little damage to Syrian assets.
As that didn’t dissuade Syria from using internationally banned weapons again a year later, the feeling is that a more substantial, and perhaps prolonged, response is required this time.
However, the US wants to destroy only Syrian and Iranian military and is eager to avoid killing Russians so that Moscow won’t feel obliged to retaliate against US targets. But Moscow has allowed Syrian planes and other assets to shelter at Russian bases increasing the risk of Russian casualties. And the Kremlin is still desperate for revenge after a humiliating battle in February when US troops killed dozens, possibly hundreds, of Russian mercenaries storming a joint American-Kurdish base in Syria.
If Russia really tries to retaliate against US military facilities in Syria or elsewhere in the region that would ratchet the game up to an entirely more dangerous level.
Pentagon and intelligence sources say the US and its British and French allies could then choose to respond to Russian retaliation within Syria or by hurting the Kremlin’s interests somewhere else. For example the pro-Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.
But another terrifying consideration in all of this is that Trump seems incapable of cobbling together a consistent foreign policy with clear goals or of even grasping how the various dots connect in the complex foreign policy picture.
He seems oblivious to the implications of the Syrian drama for his de-nuclearization talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un scheduled for next month. Iran is involved in Syria as a key player on Assad’s side. In mid-May Trump must decide whether to adhere by or scrap a treaty on suspending Iran’s nuclear program signed by Obama in 2015. Increased hostility to Iran over Syria will probably solidify Trump’s desire to scrap the agreement.
That in turn will not inspire confidence in Kim Jong Un that America will abide by any similar agreement with North Korea. In any case, Chinese pressure on Korea is crucial for the success of any accord and as Trump has initiated an ill-planned trade war with China, he can’t count on an abundance of good will from Beijing.
Perhaps the aggressive response to Russia – the first time Trump has directly criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin – is at least partly explainable by the arrival at the White House of new security adviser John Bolton, a famous hawk who has Russia and Iran in his sights.
But echoing his past reticence to criticize Putin, Trump has also this week tried to blame the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Moscow’s involvement in the 2016 election for somehow leading to the dangerous military confrontation with Russia in Syria.
The investigation has always infuriated Trump because he feels it is impugning his 2016 electoral victory. But the president has become increasingly vexed as Mueller seems to be homing in on Trump’s opaque business relations with Putin’s crooked associates.
A disturbing possibility is that Trump, only ever precariously tethered to truth and morality, is willing to risk war with Russia to distract attention from the investigation or discredit any evidence of his financial or personal misconduct held there.