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Road to Damascus

Published Apr 12, 2017 06:00am

REX Tillerson’s conversations in Moscow today will be extremely interesting, to put it mildly. The US secretary of state, the recipient five years ago of an Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin, is unlikely to come across many friendly faces in the Russian capital.

What some people saw as the solitary potential upside of a Trump presidency, namely the likelihood of less fraught relations between Washington and Moscow, was upended in the wake of last week’s US missile strike on a Syrian airbase, theoretically in retaliation for a bombing raid by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in which the chemical weapon sarin was deployed.

Neither Syria nor Russia has denied that a chemical weapon was indeed the culprit in the upwards of 80 horrendous deaths at Khan Sheikhun in Idlib province, but both claim it was the consequence of bombs falling on rebel stockpiles of the deadly substance. That’s unlikely, although not implausible.

The alternative explanation would be the deliberate use of sarin by the Syrian air force, and at least some of the scepticism about that particular scenario derives not from the profound cruelty of the act — the Syrian regime’s capacity for brutality is well established — but from its extreme stupidity.


Is it acceptable to slay civilians, including ‘beautiful children’?


After all, Syria was supposed to have surrendered all its stockpiles of chemical weapons following a Russian-brokered agreement almost four years ago. Ever since, Barack Obama has been regularly excoriated by some for not retaliating when the Syrian government crossed a ‘red line’ he had rhetorically instituted through the ostensible use of chemical weapons on a rebel-held area on the outskirts of Damascus.

One of the reasons the Obama administration was so keen to go along with the alternative proposed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, though, was that an implacably hostile US Congress would almost certainly have rejected any proposal for military action in Syria, just as the British parliament had done.

Back then, Donald Trump’s tweets were imploring the president to stay out of Syria. What’s more, until a couple of weeks ago representatives of the Trump administration were implying that Assad wasn’t the primary problem, and that all efforts must be focused on defeating the militant Islamic State group and other jihadists.

The Tomahawking of the Syrian air force indirectly rewards those very forces, just as the US-Saudi actions in Yemen tend to do. It’s hardly any surprise that Riyadh and Tel Aviv are again on precisely the same page in hailing Trump’s initiative, perhaps even more vociferously than liberal and conservative hawks in the West. It’s as if precipitate military action is all it takes for a widely scorned White House incumbent to suddenly appear presidential.

Trump’s Pauline conversion on the (at least metaphorical) road to Damascus was apparently prompted by the ubiquitous images of “beautiful children” struggling to survive the chemical overload. The images are indeed heartrending, even in a world accustomed to such atrocities. As several commentators have pointed out, though, isn’t Trump at the same time striving to exclude equally beautiful children from entry into his nation?

Besides, is it acceptable to slay civilians, inevitably including beautiful children, with barrel bombs and other weaponry that excludes chemical weapons? And who can say precisely how many beautiful children have perished in the Middle East in the past couple of decades as a consequence of US actions or those of its allies? Remember how Bill Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright said that the deaths of an estimated half a million children in Iraq were an acceptable price to pay for sanctions against Iraq?

It was 50 years ago this month that Martin Luther King Jr definitively broke his silence on Vietnam by eloquently condemning his nation’s government as the worst perpetrator of violence in the world. Not enough has changed in the interim.

It cannot be denied that US action in Syria helped to detract attention from Trumps multiple domestic dilemmas. That too is a fairly typical American pattern.

The sharply deteriorated ties with Russia ought to be a key concern, though. Not to mention the Trump summit with China’s president Xi Jinping at the US president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, which was overshadowed by the military action.

Far from the Middle East, meanwhile, there’s the question of North Korea, in which context the cliché of ‘all options are on the table’ has lately been echoing, amid assertions that the US is willing to go it alone, as if the most powerful nation in the world — which has lately given notice of its intent to sharply increase its military budget — needs assistance in operating a fly-swatter.

The assumption that Trump would be a relatively isolationist president has been comprehensively thwarted. Unfortunately, the suspicion that he is stupidly susceptible to dodgy advice from a range of dubious —in some cases deranged — advisers remains intact.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2017