Lt General BHOPINDER SINGH | 27 APRIL, 2017
Trump's $100 Million Military Dud Does Little Except Establish His Anti-Russia Credentials
CHANDIGARH: At $1.5 million apiece, the use of 59 US Tomahawk cruise missiles on the Shayrat Air Base in Syria was close to a $100 million Presidential decision. This counter-attack was ostensibly in response to the chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s government forces, that killed over eighty civilians. Apparently Donald Trump felt that the chemical attack had, “crossed a lot of lines” and that he felt a “responsibility” to respond. As the first significant military action initiated by Donald Trump, questions abound on the prudence, impact and the real motive behind the attack?
This Presidential assent from a man who had tweeted against military intervention in Syria in 2013, “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your "powder" for another (and more important) day!”, was a deliberate U-turn.
What was the objective of this military strike – was it to neuter Bashar Al Assad’s abilities to repeat a chemical attack? Was it to defang Bashar Al Assad militarily and aid the rebel forces in overrunning Syrian government forces? Was it to protect the American assets and lives deployed in the Iraqi-Syrian theatre? Was it to destroy the Russian assets that were working to the detriment of the US interests in Syria? If it were any of the above mentioned objectives, then the resultant impact post the Tomahawk attack is an unequivocal, negative.
Militarily, why would the US bother about a secondary air base with limited Syrian Air Force infrastructure (instead of targeting the main airbase in Hemeimeem)?
Ironically, despite the $100 million cost, both the Shayrat runway and base’s air defenses were left operational and not destroyed beyond usability, while the more lethal Russian war-machinery on site was left completely untouched.
Secondly, why was a gentle advance warning about the impending Tomahawk attack issued to the Russians (and by default, the Syrians), as the same could have only minimized the ground damage? On the contrary, the crucial military hotline between the US and the Russians to coordinate military action against the principal enemy i.e. ISIS, and avoid unintentional attacks on each other, has gone dangerously silent, and snapped.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised to up the ante with the supply of the even more sophisticated S-300 and S-400 air defense systems for Bashar Al Assad’s forces, which in future would put the US assets in the Syrian airspace at unescapable risk. With the aerial dimension acquiring dangerous “no-fly” portents for the US, even the American ground forces become more vulnerable, unless an even more direct and escalatory step is risked by Donald Trump.
In all this, the foremost task of defeating the ISIS has been crucially sidelined. Militarily, the barrage of Tomahawks fired was neither “proportional” nor “appropriate”, as claimed by the US administration.
Perhaps the answer to the Presidential motivation lies in the political messaging of the act. Possibly, as an embedded message of “US decisiveness” for the Chinese President Xi Jingping, who was lunching with President Trump at the time when the US Naval destroyers, USS Porter and USS Ross were firing away the Tomahawks - the Chinese, along with the Russians have steadfastly opposed UN resolutions against Bashar Al Assad. But realistically, for any meaningful messaging aimed at Beijing, the target cannot be based so far away from the Chinese Mainland and needs to be nearer to the PLA footprints e.g. South China Seas, hence, it is highly unlikely that China was the primary motivation.
However, the mounting domestic pressure of negating the “Russian-connect” that supposedly resulted in Moscow colluding with the Donald Trump campaign to deliver the unexpected Presidential results in 2016, is fast gaining currency and concern. In asingular stroke, President Donald Trump has negated and torn-apart his attributed Kremlin taint by taking on the Russian interest in Syria head-on, and assuming the more accepted anti-Russian stand, that is publicly palatable in a throw-back to the cold war era.
Donald Trump stole Hillary Clinton’s thunder when within hours of her dare, “I really believe we should have and still should take out his air fields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them” – Trump optically did just that, and silenced his opposition.
The spectre of a possible Congressional investigation into accusations of some sort of a “KGB controlled stooge” were becoming increasingly difficult to ward-off, given the multiplicity of Trump’s other streaks, that could give credence to virtually any fantasia of conspiracy theories. Thankfully for Trump, President Putin has described the Tomahawk attack as “an act of aggression against a sovereign state” and that it “dealt a serious blow to Russia-US relations”.
This attack has also signaled the fundamental change from the Trump campaign-stand where he had radically suggested “partnering” with Russia, and remaining focused on neutralizing ISIS. Trump had then argued against taking on Bashar Al Assad by stating that US had, “bigger problems than Assad” in the ISIS. Clearly, something beyond the tragedy of the alleged chemical attack had triggered Donald Trump from upsetting the ground equilibrium and shifting his own stated position. With the services of the US Defense Secretary, General (Retired) James Mattis, and the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, General (Retired) HR McMaster, Trump has enough domain experience and wisdom at his disposal to know the military efficacy and impact of attacking Bashar Al Assad with only 59 Tomahawks!
Post-attack, the US now has more enemies on-ground that it did before the attack; the pressure generated on the supposed principal enemy (i.e. ISIS) has eased; neither the Russians nor the Chinese are taking to the Tomahawk decision too kindly; Bashar Al Assad remains firmly entrenched, and all in all, the region is militarily a lot more unsafe and unstable,especially for the US. In short, there is just the one invaluable thing that Trump has achieved by footing a $100 million military dud - re-established the politically safe position of an ‘anti-Russia’ US President.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)
(Cover Photograph:One of the many Memes highlighting Trump-Putin equations that the US President now wants to get away from)