Trump’s cruise missile attack on a Syrian army base, where supposedly the recent gas attack against civilians originated, was largely smoke and mirrors (Russians, and therefore Syrians, have been warned about the strike), but it has been making a lot more heads explode all around the United States.
— ABC News (@ABC) April 7, 2017
First, there are the most obvious questions as to what this action really signifies. Why did Trump change his position 180 degrees in a space of a day or two? Is he genuinely contemplating an armed intervention in Syria, or is he merely using the attack to send a signal to Syrians? Or Russians? Or Iranians? Or Chinese? Or North Koreans? Or to Chinese about North Koreans? Or to Russians about Syrians?
Secondly, by sending in as few as 59 Tomahawk missiles, Trump has managed to confuse and discomfit large sections of the political spectrum.
His alt-right, populist and isolationist fan base is in a state of shock of the apparent betrayal of the Trump agenda by Trump himself. Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars has told his half a million Twitter followers he’s “OFF” the Trump train, whom he accused of being just another “deep state/neocon puppet”. Watson’s boss, the unhinged conspiracy monger Alex “chemtrails” Jones, thinks the gas attack was a “false flag” operation by the rebels to provoke the West, including Trump, against Assad. Alt-right supports Assad and Putin because in their books they’re fighting “terrorism”/ISIS (and we should therefore be supporting them). In reality, Assad and Putin are doing very little of it, preferring to eliminate the last remnants of a saner/non-Islamist opposition, because they know that when they succeed and it finally comes to a binary choice of Assad vs ISIS, the West will choose Assad as a lesser of two evils.
On the other end of the spectrum, the crowd who think that Trump is Putin’s, not neocon’s, puppet, are trying to square their conviction that the United States is being controlled from the Kremlin with Trump sending missiles against Russia’s greatest ally and proxy in the Middle East. Or perhaps it’s all some 4D chess, where Trump is able to symbolically distance himself from Putin without really distancing himself in practice. As Dilbert’s Scott Adams, who thinks that the gas attack was staged, writes “So how does a Master Persuader respond to a fake war crime? He does it with a fake response, if he’s smart.”
The mostly left-wing “humanitarians”, who believe that “we should do something” about Syria – while never telling us exactly what we should do – must be having second thoughts right now that that “something” is being done by a guy whom they have convinced themselves is a corrupt, incompetent, bumbling fool, if not a straight-out crazy. The Democratic Party leadership now faintly praising the president are in this category; Hillary, after all, called for bombing of Syrian airfields only yesterday. In this, Trump is #ImWithHer.
In fairness, many member of #NeverTrump on the right (like Ben Shapiro or Bill Kristol), who hold a pretty similar opinion of the president to the left’s, are now finding themselves in an uncomfortable position of having to support him. Whatever happens to the right, however, we can be sure that the left is quickly going to become anti-war now that war can be waged by a Republican president. It was certainly more convenient to virtue signal about Syria when you thought there was no chance Trump would actually do anything about Syria, with an added bonus of bashing him over his inaction in the face of genocide.
As I wrote yesterday, Syria is a real “problem from hell” in that there is no obvious solution. Civilians might be innocent, as they usually are, but the conflict is now being largely waged between two unsavoury sides – Assad on the one side and Islamists/Al-Qaeda/ISIS on the other. Fighting one objectively aids the other, while not doing very much to help the plight of average Syrians. Fighting both is not an option. Fighting either automatically entangles you in a proxy fight against any number of regional powers. The best time to intervene militarily was in the first two years of the conflict when the opposition to Assad was still largely broad-based and sane, before ISIS rose up, before Russia intervened. The best thing to have done since missing that chance would have been to arm the Syrian (and Iraqi) Kurds, one of the most effective fighting forces in the region. The US and the West have done neither.