US strikes to change geopolitical balance of power

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The US carried out an air strike on a Syrian airbase in what they claimed was retaliation for an alleged chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, which killed 74 people including 11 children, on April 4th 2017.

The strike was carried out ahead of any independent investigation, giving rise to the suspicion that the chemical attack was a pretext for direct intervention against the Syrian government.

Before the strike President Donald Trump gave an emotional press conference where he reacted to the images of dead children; I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me – big impact.

But after the strike Trump revealed that those dead children came second place to America’s geopolitical interests. He informed the world that:

“It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,”

The US’ action was designed to protect its geopolitical interests in the region and risks making the world a more unpredictable and unstable place.

Evidence and facts – What do we know?

Trump responds to chemical attack
Trump responds to alleged chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun

One rule when examining evidence is not to take evidence supplied by those with a material interest in the outcome at face value.

Sadly this is where many western journalists have come up short, announcing Assad guilty as charged and joining in beating the war drums. Their behaviour is in stark contrast to the news of the death of up to 300 civilians allegedly many of them children, in a suspected US airstrike in Mosul, where they posed as the model of ‘objectivity’.

At the time of writing very little is known apart from what is agreed by the parties directly involved in the incident, the Syrian regime and the rebels, principally Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front.

They agree that Syrian jets carried out a missile attack and that there was a chemical incident as a result. The use of the the phrase ‘chemical incident’ is appropriate as the delivery mechanism is in dispute. The UN’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs told the UN Security Council that:

“Reports have stated that the attack was carried out through an airstrike on a residential area [but] the means of delivery of the alleged attack cannot be definitively confirmed, at this stage,”

In other words there was not enough evidence to determine the who and the how.

But this did not deter the US and its allies, they declared Assad guilty. France’s representative insisted:

“…there was significant evidence that the event had not resulted from an air strike on a warehouse belonging to rebel groups, as some had claimed. The atrocities had demonstrated the Assad regime’s ‘destructive folly'”

Unfortunately France didn’t see fit to share this evidence with the UN’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.

Oddly, despite the Syrian regime and the rebels agreeing that the attack was missile strikes carried out by jets, the AFP news agency reported that the initial draft resolution from the western allies to the Security Council demanded information on helicopter squadrons:

“Damascus would be asked to provide the names of all commanders of helicopter squadrons to UN investigators and allow them to meet with generals and other high-ranking officials within five days of their request, the draft resolution said.”

Which indicates their initial assessment was that the incident was a barrel bomb attack. It would seem that the western allies were acting before they had bothered to get all the facts…

All this points to, whether Assad was responsible or not, the US and the west looking for a pretext for direct military confrontation with Syria. The question is why?

Why wade further into the quagmire of Syria?

This is complicated in the respect that this is more a question of a hierarchy of motives, domestic and geopolitical, rather than one of a particular objective.

Domestically Trump has faced huge obstacles in implementing his campaign promises. An article by the Atlantic brutally summed up Trump’s position:

“Today, Trump is desperate. He is flailing from failure to failure in domestic policy, with dismal approval ratings and no clear way to increase them-except by trying to exploit the American public’s historic tendency to rally around a president at war.”

The primary concern is geopolitical as it affects the US’ position as, in the words of ex-State Department adviser Robert Kagan, …a regional power in every strategic region.

Syria divided: Who controls what
Syria divided: Who controls what? Source Al Jazeera

There is a pattern in the US alliance with the Kurds of northern Syria which appears to indicate that the US is working to establish a presence in a divided Syria. On CBS’s Face the Nation US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said If we can achieve ceasefires in zones of stabilization in Syria, then I believe – we hope we will have the conditions to begin a useful political process.

This is not straight forward though, there is vociferous opposition from Turkey, who regard the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (Yekineyen Parastina Gel; YPG) as terrorists. The US think tank, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, notes the myriad of conflicting interests in their report ‘Syrian Kurds as a U.S. Ally‘:

“…the Kurds themselves, Turkey, Arabs in the Kurdish-controlled area, the Syrian Arab opposition, the Iraqi Kurds, and Russia. All of these parties are engaged in complex interactions; none fully share U.S. interests—although many have interests that overlap with or differ from those of the United States.”

There is evidence of a split within Trump’s team over the fate of Assad with Tillerson and the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley taking different stances. This division is a reflection of a wider split within the American ruling elite over how to deal with Russia and other challenges.

Tillerson in the CBS interview above, while questioning Assad’s legitimacy as leader, agreed that the fate of Assad was in the hands of Syrian people. He also warned of the dangers of regime change; we’ve seen what violent regime change looks like in Libya and the kind of chaos that can be unleashed….

In contrast, the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley in an interview with CNN was clear that; There’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.

The ambition to overthrow Assad is a much more fraught aim in that it risks direct confrontation with Russia, and even if successful the likely outcome would be a vacuum that would be filled by IS and a multitude of other jihadist groups.

The US strategy, for now, looks to be one of establishing a presence in Syria while simultaneously removing the influence of Russia and Iran by ousting Assad.

When all this is considered, what makes it worth the risks of wading into the quagmire that is Syria?

Strategic importance of the east Mediterranean

Mediterranean Sea
Mediterranean Sea: The east Mediterranean is the meeting point for three continents

The east Mediterranean area (known as the Levant), of which Syria is part, links three continents and is a gateway for Asian, African and European trade routes which makes the region one of the most strategically important on the planet.

Understanding the geopolitical importance of the region is perhaps best explained through an analysis of Israel by Stratfor, a global intelligence company:

“Israel therefore occupies what might be called the convergence zone of the Eastern Hemisphere. A European power trying to dominate the Mediterranean or expand eastward, an eastern power trying to dominate the space between the Hindu Kush and the Mediterranean, a North African power moving toward the east, or a northern power moving south — all must converge on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and therefore on Israel. Of these, the European power and the eastern power must be the most concerned with Israel. For either, there is no choice but to secure it as an anchor.”

For any country with global influence, or global ambitions, the east Mediterranean area is crucial and they are compelled to fight for a stake in it, preferably at their rivals expense.

Making the world a more dangerous place

The US is facing the challenge of a shift from a unipolar world to a multi-polar one with the rise of China and Russia on the global stage and Turkey, Iran and Brazil as regional powers.

This has caused deep splits in the American ruling elites over a choice between maintaining American hegemony, by force if necessary, or recognising the spheres of influence of competing powers. The decision to launch air strikes against Syria shows that this infighting can produce sharp turns in policy.

The US air strike has ramifications beyond the middle east. The Dallas News observed, that the strike against Syria served as a not-so-subtle warning to U.S. rivals:

“President Donald Trump’s decision to strike Syria sent a powerful message around the world — one that could be read very differently in Moscow, Pyongyang and Beijing.”

This sudden volte-face in US policy risking direct confrontation with its major rivals means that the world is now a more unpredictable, unstable and dangerous place.

Gary Hollands – April 11th 2017

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