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Why Donald Trump launched his air strike on Assad in Syria

Barack Obama made a virtue of his decision not to follow the “Washington playbook” on Syria. His successor had an opportunity to distinguish himself. 

Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria has clung on to power over the course of a six-year civil war largely because of the help he has received from his friends. At those times at which the regime’s military fortunes seemed to be waning, Assad has been the beneficiary of external interventions to prop him up: first in the form of a large influx of Hezbollah fighters (beginning in 2012 before surging in 2014) supported and sponsored by Iran; and latterly, Russia’s intervention which began in September 2015, following an official request to President Putin.

It says much about the nature of the Assad regime that it has repeatedly taken actions that squander the gains that this support has allowed it to make. It is hard to see how the latest ghoulish chemical weapons attack on his civilians had any serious military or strategic utility. It has served only to court the censure of the world’s most powerful military power. Before this week, the United States – under two very different presidents – had made no secret of its inclination not to get involved in the Syrian conflict and of its view, based on the rise of Islamic State, that Assad may be the lesser of two evils. After numerous challenges to its authority, the US has decided that it is time to act.

What is often missed about President Obama’s 20 August 2012 “red line” message was that it was never intended to be a prelude to action or a final warning, but arose instead from a clear expression of his desire not to get embroiled in Syria’s civil war. Asked by a reporter whether anything would change his mind on intervention, Obama made an unscripted remark that the proliferation of chemical or biological weapons was one such potential scenario. The message was not simply relayed to Assad, “but also to other players on the ground”, in the event (presumed highly unlikely at the time) that they would flout one of the few remaining international taboos of the post-1945 era. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation,” Obama said. It said much about the sheer brazenness of the Syrian regime that this was put to the test on 21 August 2013, with a sarin gas attack on Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus.

In the days that followed, the US and its allies were on a war footing in the full expectation that there would be some sort of punitive action. The most likely scenario, at the time, was the type of surgical strike that Trump administration has now conducted: targeting some of the regime’s weapons facilities, or the airbases from which the attacks were launched. In 2013, the then-secretary of state John Kerry made what was widely understood to be a war speech, justifying action. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and other key American allies, such as Saudi Arabia, rolled in behind in the expectation that a military response would follow. Then a sequence of events occurred that saw Obama draw back from the brink and decide against the military option. Cameron was defeated in the House of Commons over support for likely action, and Obama grew more conscious of the likely objections of Congress, and the difficulties of attaining its approval.

Subsequently, Obama has sought to make a virtue of his decision not to follow the “Washington playbook” on the issue. He has even described it as his “proudest moment”. But the story is more complicated than that. First, it is now clear that the US failed to get the regime to give up these weapons (as Obama proudly announced had been achieved with Russian assistance). Second, even if one ignores the hysterical critics of Obama (of which there are far too many), some of his closest allies thought that he did serious damage to American credibility across a range of indices. Obama thought Washington was too obsessed by preserving “credibility”. This, after all, is an abstract notion that cannot be measured in terms of immediate national interest. But even vice-president Joe Biden (Obama’s close ally on nearly every major national security and who shared his desire to pivot away from these Middle East imbroglios) is reported to have said “big powers don't bluff”.

 All this sets the background to President Trump’s decision to take military action against Assad. But this is not the first indication of an emerging “Trump doctrine” - most presidential doctrines are made up as they go along. The reality is more mundane. At numerous points during his campaign, and since taking office, Trump has expressed the view that he disapproved of Obama’s weakness on the Syrian issue, and believed that the indecision of his predecessor was detrimental to American power. Of course, Trump is not averse to changing his mind, or flip-flopping on foreign affairs. He has often argued that the rise of Isis is a much bigger problem for the United States than the Assad regime. However, on an issue so clear cut, which allowed him to distinguish himself from Obama so quickly, it is hard to see how he could have avoided taking action.

In the first instance, the firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles at a military installation is a limited and carefully calibrated use of force. It is not, contrary to Trump’s image, a reckless pouring of fuel on the fire, though there are many potential second order complications, such as Russian control of Syrian air space. The Russians have also called the action illegal.

The air strike affords Trump the opportunity of distinguishing himself from Obama on a humanitarian issue – something that can be forced back down the throats of his liberal critics (spokesman Sean Spicer will already be preparing the lines). More importantly, it enables him to rally significant portions of the foreign policy establishment – including previously hostile Republicans – who thought that Obama’s inaction was a symbolic and strategic error of long-term consequence. This grouping was already heartened by the departure of Trump confidant Steve Bannon from the National Security Council earlier in the week.

There is an added advantage in the timing too. It allows the president to begin his summit with China’s Xi Jinping having demonstrated that the United States is still willing to flex its muscle against those who challenge its authority. Finally, it may even relieve some of the domestic pressure Trump has faced over Russian influence in his presidential campaign. Russia’s forthright condemnation of the air strikes demonstrate that, for the president, the relationship with Putin does not come before all else.

The lack of clarity about what happens next has partly been created by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is not having the best of starts. After weeks of silence, Tillerson fumbled his lines on the Syria question and created the impression that the US was about to undergo another about-turn and make regime change in Syria its preferred policy again, having previously abandoned it. This is unlikely in the short-term.

Having acted swiftly and decisively, Trump may have made his point without the tortured choreography that usually precedes any Western military action. It may all come back to one of his most repeated slogans: that it is time for America to “start winning again”. On this, at least, he is likely to receive a significant boost of support from the national security establishment who have watched him with a wary eye since he took office.

As expected, meanwhile, keeping up with Donald Trump is going to be a constant challenge for America’s allies. Britain has done this better than most by trying to follow the prevailing winds on Middle East and Nato policy. Along with the French government, the UK had called for a UN resolution before any military action. In the event, Downing Street was “consulted” about the decision, but not asked to consider its merits, or offer its support. Once Trump had made up his mind, he was not going to wait for approval.


John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

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How Japan is preparing for the great flood

Experts fear Tokyo’s flood defences are not enough to avoid calamity.

Just north of Tokyo, a network of gigantic subterranean cisterns, tunnels and industrial engines helps to protect the world’s largest metropolitan area from extreme flooding – the threat of which is rising because of climate change. The system’s five cylindrical shafts can each accommodate a space shuttle, and the main tank, known as “the temple”, is held up by rows of 500-tonne pillars. Built at a cost of $2bn in 2006, the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel sucks in water from swollen rivers and pumps it
out towards the ocean using the type of engines used in jet airliners.

The project has so far done its job in protecting the Tokyo area’s 38 million residents. But many experts fear the capital’s flood defences – which also include extensive underground reservoirs – are not enough to avoid calamity. Japan is being afflicted by ever stronger typhoons, and rainfall levels rise every year. In one river breach scenario, the government projects more than 6,000 deaths. “To be frank, these measures are not enough,” says Nobuyuki Tsuchiya, the former chief civil engineer of Tokyo’s flood-prone Edogawa ward.

Mayumi Ootani, who sells pots and pans and cigarettes from her shop, puts things more bluntly: “We’re living side-by-side with death.”

Calamitous flooding wrought by extreme weather is becoming an international menace, as shown last year in Texas, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In Tokyo, the threat is even greater because the city is already so vulnerable to natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, typhoons and tsunami.

Swiss Re, a reinsurer, described Tokyo and neighbouring Yokohama as the world’s riskiest metropolitan area in a 2014 study, citing extreme flooding as one of the perils. The Japan Meteorological Agency blames climate change for a 30 per cent rise in rainfall measuring more than two inches per hour – in what is already one of the world’s wettest cities. In recent times, Tokyoites have also been beset by man-made perils, such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and North Korea’s recent threats to bring “nuclear clouds ” to Japan.

Such a confluence of worries might seem a recipe for mass-neurosis, or a flight to areas that do not lie on seismic or geopolitical fault lines. But  while Japan’s overall population declines due to low birth rates, Tokyo’s is still growing, with young people migrating from stagnant rural areas. Meanwhile, the city continues to build more and more skyscrapers – testament to Japan’s superlative earthquake-resistance technologies.

Even in the districts of Tokyo most at risk from floods and earthquakes, people tend to go about life with an optimism partly born of resignation. “I don’t go around worrying about it – if disaster comes, it comes,” says Toshio Miyata, who runs a tempura restaurant in a wood-framed home. “We Tokyoites don’t give a damn, whether it’s earthquake, fire or flooding. You can’t expect to fight with nature and win.”

Miyata runs his business in the Edogawa  ward – bordered and bisected by flood-prone rivers. It’s one of the areas that form what is known as the city’s shitamachi, or downtown, traditionally considered the authentic heart of Tokyo, where people are gruff, plain-spoken and on the hustle. It’s also the centre of so-called zero-metre zones that lie below sea level – and are doubly vulnerable because of the risk of inundation and buckling during quakes, a result of poor land quality. (One Edogawa resident described the ground beneath her home as “soft as tofu”.)

Yet it is precisely a centuries-old history of coping with disaster that explains how people here deal with the prospect, even likelihood, of natural calamity. “The consciousness that you may die in a natural disaster is something deeply-rooted among the Japanese,” says Kansai University disaster psychologist Tadahiro Motoyoshi. “There is a strong sense of the threat and the blessings of nature.”

Tsuchiya, the former Edogawa chief civil engineer, says these low-lying areas have been flooded at least 250 times in the past four centuries – causing countless deaths – but each time the survivors started over in the same place. Innovation came with the commitment to stay. Residents developed elevated structures called mizuya – literally “water houses” – where they could store necessities and escape to during flooding, as well as a sophisticated system of emergency boats that converted the submerged city into a floating one.

Engineering marvels such as the metropolitan discharge channel and a planned network of super-levees, more than 300 meters wide, are an extension of these early innovations.

Japan’s earthquake-resistance technologies also draw inspiration from the past. The Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest tower at 634 metres, completed in 2011, borrows from Japan’s traditional five-storey pagodas – which since medieval times have been resistant to the most powerful earthquakes. Skytree engineers adapted the pagoda’s central pole – called a shinbashira – that redistributes seismic vibrations to prevent collapse.

There is also a stock of resilience and community spirit that has managed to survive waves of rampant development and inward migration. Masanobu Namatame makes painted paper lanterns for traditional festivals. He squats on straw mats in his Edogawa workshop, carrying on a craft that has been handed down through generations. “The locals depend on me during festival time,” he says. “So I’m not thinking about running away.”

But the family business was not always in this location. During Namatame’s grandfather’s time it was in the more affluent Kojimachi district. Wartime air-raids that burned down the house forced the family to flee here with a few belongings on their backs.

“The bottom line is if some calamity happens you have to run,” says Namatame. “But until then you just stay put and get on with things.” 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist