April has been an eventful month geopolitically so far. President Trump carried out a much-trumpeted-about Tomahawk missile strike at the Syrian regime, held responsible by him for a nerve-agent attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, a province largely held by rebels. Trump has changed his mind on China, which he previously accused as a ‘currency manipulator’. He has also changed his mind on ‘resetting’ relations with Putin and US-Russia relations are at their ‘lowest point’ in years. Trump has issued a harsh warning to North Korea to stop missile and nuclear tests. There are signals that Trump would scale up the US military engagement in Afghanistan. Trump has congratulated, with alacrity, Turkey’s President Erdogan on his referendum victory. Are all these developments related to one another?
On March 30, 2017, the US stated that it no longer wanted to topple President Basher al-Assad and would instead concentrate on defeating and destroying the Islamic State (IS). Assad, on life-support provided by Russia and Iran, must have heaved a sigh of relief. He might have thought that over time he could free himself from the life-support system and even recover the lost territory in full.
The chemical attack occurred on April 4. Strictly speaking, it is not yet known as to who carried it out, although circumstantial evidence points to Assad. The Pentagon has claimed that two SU-22 aircraft took off from the Shayrat airbase to carry out the attack. It is difficult to believe that Assad would have used chemical weapons as he was winning militarily and diplomatically. However, it cannot be ruled out that Assad, emboldened by Washington’s signal, might have thought that he could get away with it since Trump was focused on fighting the IS. Assad might have also recalled that Obama, after ordering a strike in August 2013 following a much bigger chemical attack, had second thoughts.
The other possibility is that the rebels might have carried out the chemical weapons attack in order to blame Assad. The Russian explanation at the UN Security Council was rather convoluted: Syrian planes bombed a rebel military area that had stored the chemical weapons and the toxic stuff was released because of the bombing. What is perplexing, however, is that the Russian Ministry of Defense on its Facebook noted that the bombing occurred between 11.30 AM and 12.30 PM, whereas the chemical attack occurred hours earlier in the morning. Incidentally, this entry, which the author had seen days ago, is now missing.
Perhaps, the Tomahawk strike was primarily meant to improve Trump’s domestic standing, prove how different he was from Obama, and also to signal that he did not have any soft corner towards Putin with whose help, Trump critics say, he got elected. Contacts between Trump’s election team and Russia are under investigation and Trump might eventually face some embarrassment, if not worse.
The Tomahawk missiles were meant to serve as a warning to Assad as well as his principal supporter Putin. The Pentagon gave notice of the operation to the Russian military as required under the ‘de-confliction’ agreement of October 2015 to avoid air accidents between the two sides while operating in Syrian air space. There was no injury to any Russian personnel. The Syrian government has claimed that six soldiers and nine civilians, including four children, were killed in the US missile strike.
One might assume that Russia would have shared the warning with Syria in which case it is difficult to figure out why the children were there. The Pentagon has claimed that 20 per cent of Syrian war planes have been destroyed, but independent verification is as yet not available.
Russia responded sharply and said that the missile attack was an act of aggression in violation of international law. It announced plans to fortify air defence. In theory, Russia could have shot down the missiles, but obviously it exercised restraint.
US Secretary of State Tillerson had scheduled a visit to Moscow before the chemical attack. He attended the G7 meeting at Lucca in Italy before going to Moscow. He tried hard, with the help of UK’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, to get the G7 to agree to new sanctions on Russia for its failure to prevent the chemical attack. The G7 rejected the proposal for sanctions, with Italy and Germany insisting on a proper inquiry to determine who was responsible before considering sanctions.
Here, we may note the diplomatic style that has come into vogue now. Boris Johnson had announced with much fanfare that the G7 would agree to sanctions. Tillerson had told the media at Lucca that he was carrying a tough message to Moscow to abandon its support for Assad or else. Trump called Assad ‘an animal’ and ‘a butcher’.
Tillerson found out in Moscow that Russia was far from intimidated by his threats. There was the usual red carpet at the airport, but no meeting with Putin was scheduled. Lavrov and Tillerson met courteously, but not cordially. Lavrov pointedly asked what the US policy was as he had heard different things from different officials. He also made it clear that there was no question of yielding to the demand to withdraw support to Assad. Finally, there was a two-hour meeting between Tillerson and Putin, but without any breakthrough. Days later, Russia, Iran, and Syria met at the foreign ministers’ level and support for Assad was reaffirmed. Public demands beget public rejections.
What is important to note is that Trump cannot, at least for a while, start a ‘reset’ with Russia. Here, the larger question is: Does Trump have a set of core principles and convictions or was it all slogans to get elected? We also should note how a neophyte President is being educated and tamed by the establishment.
On April 6, Trump was hosting a dinner for China’s President Xi Jinping at his luxurious Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida. Two events of geopolitical importance had occurred before Trump welcomed his guest. First, China gave Ivanka Trump provisional approval to sell her brand of jewellery, clothing, bags, and spa services in the whole country. Second, Trump had given the green signal for the Tomahawk missiles to be aimed at the Shayrat airbase.
Trump waited until dessert – the ‘most beautiful chocolate cake’ – was served to inform his guest about the missile attack. After a pause of 10 seconds, Xi asked the interpreter to repeat the sentence. To the relief of an anxious Trump, Xi said that “anybody that was so brutal and uses gases to do that to young children and babies, it's OK.” This is Trump’s version. One may wonder whether the subtle Chinese figured out that the missiles were also meant for Putin and concluded that China’s ambition to be a co-equal of the US was getting a boost.
Trump, ever keen on doing a business deal, concluded one with Xi: In return for Xi’s help in changing the behaviour of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Trump will not start a trade war with China. He declared that China was no longer a ‘currency manipulator’.
Vice President Pence spent the Easter in Seoul. He administered a strong warning to North Korea from the demilitarized zone not to ‘test President Trump’s resolve’. Pence declared that the era of ‘strategic patience’ practiced by Obama was over and ‘all options are on the table’. Pence had to do some damage control as Trump had said earlier that South Korea and Japan were not paying back for the security they were getting from the US and that they should be left to look after themselves.
North Korea does not seem to have been intimidated. It has threatened all-out war in case of US aggression. The threat is to be taken seriously. The US might be able to destroy the whole of North Korea, but before that happens Pyongyang can strike killing a million in South Korea according to war games done by the Pentagon. Japan has already made contingency plans to evacuate the 60,000 Japanese in South Korea. The 30,000 or so US troops in South Korea are also vulnerable.
China has discontinued civilian flights to Pyongyang. And if reports are to be believed, it has also suspended coal imports from North Korea. The latest is that China has asked the US to abandon the projected anti-missile system to be installed in South Korea. When it comes to bargaining, Trump and his son-in-law will discover that Chinese leaders are a shade sharper than them.
The Trump Administration has decided to scale up its military presence in Afghanistan and to oppose the inroads that Russia and China are making into that country. On April 13, the Pentagon dropped the biggest conventional bomb, the 11-ton MOAB (mother of all bombs) at Shadel Bazar, near the Pakistan border, reportedly killing 100 IS fighters and, more importantly, destroying underground tunnels used by IS now but built with US funding at the time of the Soviet occupation. The MOAB was a signal to the IS and Taliban that the US is going to stand solidly by the Afghan government in Kabul which controls only 60 per cent of territory.
On April 14, the US boycotted a conference on peace in Afghanistan held in Moscow and attended by Afghanistan, China, India, Pakistan, and the Central Asian Republics. Washington made it clear that it was not pleased with Russia’s leading role in this endeavour. On April 16, US National Security Adviser McMaster, a serving General, arrived in Kabul. He came to find out whether there is a need to add more to the current US troop level of 8400. In 2011, the US had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and some in the US military think that Obama was in undue hurry to withdraw all of them. McMaster has visited Pakistan and India too during this visit.
Trump has congratulated President Erdogan on his victory in the referendum that will significantly add to the latter’s powers. It is to be noted that Europeans who have not congratulated Erdogan have expressed concerns about the direction Turkey is taking. Turkey’s admission to the European Union can be written off for now, but Trump, not particularly obsessed with human rights issues in Turkey, is keen to have good relations with that country, a member of NATO with the second largest army and the Incirlik Base built by the US where the Pentagon has been operating since 1955.
We cannot be sure that there will not be any further sharp turns in the future. If China cannot deliver on North Korea, Trump might ‘rediscover’ the former’s role as ‘currency manipulator’. However, the correct action will be to renew the six-party talks (the two Koreas, US, Russia, Japan and China) held between 2003 and 2009. While it is important to stop the nuclear project, it is even more important to ask why North Korea wants nuclear weapons. It wants them only because it feels insecure. It is not beyond diplomacy’s ability to find a solution that guarantees security to the regime in North Korea and combine it with a move for a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons. But Trump might not take the lead to resume talks.
As regards Russia, Washington will realize in time that Obama’s policy of ‘demonizing’ Putin will be rejected by Europeans. The Crimea cannot be taken back and on Ukraine there is scope for compromise.
Trump has decapitated the State Department and, unless he has a full team, he will not be able to have a coherent policy. Just as one swallow does not make a summer, a missile strike does not amount to policy.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.