It was not surprising for international observers when the US, UK and France launched airstrikes on Syria last Friday night. Though the obvious reason for the strikes is the accusation that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons, the real motivation behind attack is far more complex.
First, there was the high risk of repeating the mistake of launching the Iraqi war 15 years ago. The similar lack of accurate intelligence resources on Iraq and Syria is enough to make decision makers think twice about bombing Syria. Like the accusations of Iraq for having weapons of mass destruction, which later proved to be false, the use of chemical weapons in Syria has yet to be verified, and whether the Syrian government or rebel forces were behind the attack is also still unknown.
Also like the Iraq war, the second effect of the Syrian air strikes is to reshape the the Middle East, that is to contain and suppress the alliance made up of the Syrian government, Iran, and Russia, while backing up the pro-US alliance consisting of the Syrian rebel forces, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. With the Syrian civil war entering its eighth year, both Russia and Iran’s influence in Syria and the Middle East have increased. Russia is now becoming the dominant force in the process of building a post-war Syrian political structure and is increasingly getting the upper hand in the battlefield, together with the Syrian government and Iran. The US-led Western countries and their allies certainly don’t want Russia and Iran's influence to increase in the region. Unfortunately, the Syrian air strikes once again make the Middle East a the new battlefield between the US and Russia.
Third, the Syrian air strikes further damaged US-Russia relations and increased worries of a new Cold War. People notice the timing of the US-led joint airstrikes goes hand-in-hand with recent developments in the UK and the US. The situation in Syria is becoming extremely unfavorable to the rebel forces, as the Syrian government is controlling almost all of Eastern Ghouta; The ex-spy poisoning case in the UK has sparked the unprecedented expulsion of Russian diplomats from Western countries; In the US, the hawkish cabinet in the White House also regards Russia as a dangerous enemy. Both the Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton have tough stances on Russia. The move could also be a way to distract people’s attention from the Mueller investigation.
By launching the air strikes, the US is sending multiple messages to Russia and the world. First, it shows the US is still the strongest military power in the world. Second, that the US can no longer tolerate the increasing influence enjoyed by the Russia-Iran alliance in Syria and the Middle East. Third, the US can easily change the momentum and return to the Middle East when the US feels it necessary to do so. Fourth, when the US decides to take action, the country is not alone, but has allies in the Western world. The fact that the UK and France also joined the strikes showed that the trans-Atlantic alliance between the US, UK, and France is strong and unshakable. Although the Trump administration once pressed European countries to take more responsibility for their military budgets, it doesn’t mean the long-established trans-Atlantic alliance has been weakened. When there are events like the alleged Russian spy-poisoning case, Western countries will immediately stand together and show the world the “solidarity of common values.”
Finally, just like the Iraqi war 15 years ago, the US-led air strikes on Syria is a typical unilateral military action without UN approval. Ignoring the UN authorities and the relevant international laws and taking unilateral military action against a sovereign state, is a hegemonic action and will do no good for world peace and order.
April 18th 2018
The author is a senior fellow at the Charhar Institute