Veteran Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan says those Arabs who are now cheering on Donald Trump after he fired missiles at a Syrian airbase could well end up being disappointed.
Donald Trump’s missile strike on Syria has turned him into a valiant hero in the eyes of some in the Arab world.
The social media outlets of countries that supported the bombing, especially Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, have been heaping praise and applause on this president who had the courage to do what his spineless predecessor Barack Obama did not dare. Some referred to the latter as the black “slave,” matching the racism of their new idol.
This attitude is understandable. It is based on a belief that the new American president is set to overturn the balance of power in the battlefields of Syria and inevitably go on to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad and his regime, just as Gorge W. Bush did with Saddam Hussein in Iraq almost exactly 14 years ago.
But Trump’s Arab admirers could end up disappointed. The new US president may not go all the way in making their cherished dream come true. He might not even stage a repeat of his limited strike — either out of fear of the repercussions or in deference to the deep state in the US which is increasingly alarmed about the possible consequences of his recklessness.
In the meantime, much of the Arab media have for the first time been joining forces with the Israeli media in lionising and applauding the American president, rating him higher than any of his predecessors and hailing him for not being afraid of Vladimir Putin.
This meeting of minds between Arab media controlled by states that supported the missile strike and Israeli media goes hand-in-hand with preparations (and may have been designed to set the stage) for another kind of meeting: Arab-Israeli “normalisation” talks on political and economic issues, which have been taking place in secret and are shortly due to be made public.
The hopes of the US’s regional allies were most candidly expressed by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. While welcoming Trump’s strike, he said it was insufficient on its own and should be only the first many, and that he wouldn’t mind if one of them would target the presidential palace in Damascus. Perhaps that is what prompted Nikki Hailey, the US ambassador to the UN, to reassure him that further attacks could follow.
But judging from reactions in the US, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that there will be more attacks – much though this may disappoint those in the Arab world who are desperately awaiting them. Friday’s attacks were not part of a new American strategy, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as an American strategy. It does not exist. Some may argue that Trump’s strategy is to have no strategy, particularly in Syria. From what we have seen so far, Trump hates everything Obama likes, likes whatever he hates, undoes whatever he did, and does whatever he wouldn’t. That strategy is certainly one of a kind.
The Russian leadership has largely kept its own counsel and avoided saying much about its response or exposing its strategic hand. This silence probably worries the American side more than bombastic threats would.
But the joint Russian-Iranian statement issued on Sunday was unambiguous. It declared that the US missile strike had “crossed red lines,” adding that “from now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is.” It affirmed that Russia and Iran would “continue our fight alongside the Syrian Arab Army”, and “will not allow the US to dominate the world and impose a unipolar system by means of direct military aggression against Syria, violation of international law, and working outside the framework of the United Nations.”
This is a strategic stand that goes far beyond the missile strike and has regional and possibly global ramifications. It affirms that the US attacks has brought Russia and Iran closer together and driven Moscow and Washington further apart: a totally counter-productive outcome.
Syrian warplanes continued to bomb Idlib province at the weekend including the vicinity of Khan Sheikhoun village — the scene of the chemical massacre that was cited to justify the American missile strike. Russian aircraft have also been in action, with no objections from the US. It is as though Trump is saying it’s OK for hostilities to resume using missiles and conventional weapons, even if many children are among the victims, but for us Americas it is the use of chemical weapons that’s not allowed.
Chemical weapons attack
The Russian defence ministry meanwhile posed an interesting question: Given that the Shueirat airbase – from where the US says the chemical attacks were carried out – was hit by 59 cruise missiles, specifically targeting aircraft and storage sites, how come there was no trace of chemical or poison gas seepage from these planes and facilities after they were destroyed? How come the dozens of journalists and experts who visited the area over the next two days were unaffected?
We have no answer to that question because it is addressed to the Americans and Europeans who insisted that the regime’s warplanes were responsible for the chemical massacre. It is unlikely they will respond to this or other questions. Either they have no answers or, if they do, they will most certainly not reveal them to us or anyone else.
I recall when former US secretary of state Colin Powell took the stage at the UN Security Council brandishing images of mobile Iraqi chemical and biological warfare facilities, waving them to the whole world to justify the impending invasion of Iraq. At the time, I was on the panel of a live discussion on CNN, invited to give an Arab reaction to Powell’s presentation. I said – on the basis of verified information – that he was lying and that all Iraq’s WMD capabilities had been destroyed by US inspectors, and warned against the upcoming war on Iraq.
Powell later had the courage and integrity to appear on the same channel and others to apologise remorsefully for this iniquity, saying US intelligence had provided him with these pictures supported by misleading information (much as subsequently Obama apologised for the bombing of Libya, deeming it his biggest mistake in office). It turned out that the provider of this misleading information was an Iraqi named Rafed al-Janabi who had been recruited by the CIA. Like all such agents, after serving his purpose he was left out in the cold. The last I heard of him, we was working at a Burger King in Germany.
Which raises the question: Will Trump apologise in due course when he finds out who it really was who used chemical weapons in Khan Sheykhoun? And will there be apologies from at least some of these who are currently hailing his courage and applauding him? Once again, no replies or apologies can be expected from anyone.