Donald and the Conspiracists

No this isn’t the name of a post-punk rock band, and before I go any further I must tell you this is neither fake news nor real news, it is an opinion piece. Conspiracists read on.

 

I think most people will be aware that on 7 April, at 15:28 UTC, the United States of America launched a cruise missile attack against the Shayrat Syrian Air Force Base in Homs province.This was in response to civilian deaths caused by contact with toxic substances, either used by the Syrian air force or released into the atmosphere during the attack on Khan Sheikhoun. Predictably both the Syrian government and their Russian allies immediately claimed that a rebel chemical arms dump had been hit during the air raid, and consequently the civilian deaths were due to the release of chemicals into the atmosphere. Equally predictably most of the rest of the world blamed the Assad regime. The Americans are saying they have cast-iron proof that chemical weapons were used during the attack, however for reasons of national security they are not able or willing to provide this proof. The Russians have condemned the use of chemical weapons, but continue to insist there is no cast-iron proof the Syrian Air Force used any such weapons. To be perfectly honest, in my opinion, in the absence of any proof in the public domain, both versions are plausible. We all know, and are continually told, what a bloodthirsty swine Assad is, but we are rarely told about the opposition to Assad. One could be forgiven for thinking there is some sort of unified opposition, however nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the elements in the opposition are quite possibly genuine democrats, whilst most are quite possibly some of the most vicious, bigoted human beings to live on this planet. Does the Syrian government possess chemical weapons? Yes they do, and they have said in the past they are prepared to dispose of these weapons, and for that disposal to be verified by outside agencies. I must point out that currently part of the disposal of such weapons involves handing them over to Hezbollah, an internationally recognised terrorist organisation. The probability is that Syrian government forces have used such weapons against civilians in the past, although again no real proof is offered. It is just accepted as a fact, as were WMD in Iraq. Could certain factions in the Syrian opposition possess such weapons? Yes, some of them have the technical ability and might well be able to source the necessary materials to construct such weapons. Would they use them? Possibly/probably, there are far closer ties between ISIS and some elements of the Syrian opposition than is comfortable to admit to, and I am certain ISIS would not hesitate to use them.

 

The Donald:

Where to begin? Trump was elected on the promise of America first, and no unnecessary foreign entanglements. There was much mention of ‘draining the swamp’, but that doesn’t seem to have happened. What has happened is a series of so-called scandals, involving alleged close ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, alleged Russian interference in the presidential election, allegations that Trump is the Kremlin’s man, and a series of failures to introduce promised legislation. Obamacare is intact, the courts have questioned the limits of presidential power when introducing new laws by the use of Executive Orders, and the building of the wall between Mexico and America is beset by difficulties. Trump’s approval rating, according to the New York Times, is the lowest since Gallup began collecting data in 1953 There is a bigger picture here, his approval rating is 38% amongst Democrats, but higher amongst Republican, nevertheless, he has enjoyed no honeymoon period, and prior to the attack on Syria was seen to be losing support amongst some Republicans.

 

Enter the various conspiracy theories.  Most will be familiar with the theory that Trump is the Kremlin’s man. Whilst there is credible evidence the Russians did what they always have done, i.e. dabble in the internal politics of other countries, there is no credible proof they interfered with the actual physical voting process, in other words they did not hack into the American electoral system and change the results.  Some past members of the Trump administration have been exposed as being economical with the truth concerning their pre–election contacts with the Putin government,  and some appear to believe that Trump is directly controlled by Putin. According to them, the attack on the Syrian Air Force base was a ‘stitch-up’ between Trump and Putin, and was purely designed to take the heat off Trump, and prove to the American people that Trump is his own man. The Russian reaction to the raid is seen as a smokescreen, and this group of conspiracists believe it is business as usual, and Putin continues to be the puppeteer.

Trump himself would have us believe he acted because of a sense of outrage. Whilst this may be so it is somewhat alarming. Assuming there was no collusion between the White House and the Kremlin, and the Russians were only informed about the raid some 30 minutes before the missiles hit, then Trump is following a high risk strategy. Politicians have long known that if you have problems at home a sure way of at least temporarily overcoming them is to have a foreign adventure. It might be that Trump has the measure of Putin, but if he thinks one air raid is going to deter him from pursuing long-term aims then he is mistaken. There are a number of possibilities for an accidental escalation: the American people have now learned that American troops are active in Syria as well as Iraq, but they probably do not understand the complexity of the situation. Putin has suspended  the hotline between the Russian commanders in Syria and their American counterparts, and there is no longer any possibility, on the face of it at least, of coordinating American air raids against ISIS with the Russian air defence system.

Vlad the invader:

Over the last couple of years Putin has pretty much succeeded in everything he has attempted. He has annexed the Crimea, he has destabilised Eastern Ukraine, he has secured a warm water seaport in the eastern Mediterranean, and he has been seen to give diplomatic support and military aid to an ally.  In short, he is on a roll. Like Stalin before him, he will keep pushing until he meets resistance. The question is, what does he class as resistance? In the meantime he has suspended any form of military cooperation between Russia and the US in Syria, and has promised to beef up Syrian air defences. It is also a fair bet that Russia has been making as much trouble as it can in the democratic processes of not only America but quite probably the United Kingdom, and various upcoming European elections. With America having diplomatic problems with China, and making belligerent noises about North Korea, Putin may well decide that Trump has made his grand gesture, and does not intend any further action The stage is set for an accidental military confrontation. The raid on the Syrian base was not shocking, nor was it awesome–it was pretty much a waste of missiles and money.

 

Everybody else:

To say the situation in the Middle East is confusing is a gross understatement. For the moment let’s consider the war against ISIS. The Iraqi government is keen to prosecute this war because ISIS have occupied Iraqi territory. Shia Iraqis are keen to attack ISIS because they are Sunnis. Sunni Iraqis are somewhat ambivalent, they do not enjoy the life under ISIS rule however as the Iraqi government is Shia-dominated they do not trust it.  The Iraqi Kurds side with the government, but only because they are protecting their territory, and because they may gain more autonomy than they already enjoy by cooperating in the fight against ISI.  American advisers are assisting the Iraqi government forces–does this sound familiar?  Turkish troops are in Iraq, fighting against ISIS. They are also keeping a close eye on the Iraqi Kurds.  Turkish troops are also operating in Syria, ostensibly against ISIS, but there have been clashes with Syrian Kurdish forces Turkey does not like the Kurds, and does not wish to give any encouragement to the PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement based in Turkey. The last thing Turkey wishes to see is any form of independent Kurdistan, either in northern Syria or northern Iraq.  The problem here is that America actively supports Syrian Kurdish forces.  Turkey is against the Assad regime, but also anti-ISIS and as previously mentioned anti-Kurdish.  Having patched up some of their differences with Russia, they have, for the moment at least, agreed not to operate against Assad’s forces.

 

Now we come to Iran. The Iranians effectively control southern Iraq, they are present in some numbers in Syria (supporting Assad) and of course they actively support Hezbollah, who are also present in Syria. It would appear Iran is a long-term aim is to establish control of a contiguous territory from the Straits of Hormuz, through southern Iraq and through southern Syria.  This would enable them to threaten Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states, and to pose a real threat to Israel. Iran is also engaged in a proxy war in Yemen, where their allies are in direct conflict with Saudi Arabia They also support, in all senses of the word, Hamas in Gaza, even though Hamas as an organisation is resolutely Sunni, and closely aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.

 

Saudi Arabia supports some fairly questionable groups in the Syrian opposition, mainly due to religious affiliation but also because they are opposed to Assad.  In a way this both overlies them with, and puts them in opposition to, the United States. America has acted as though being opposed to Assad  is a get out of jail card  as far as having alliances with groups who pose a real threat to American interests and security is concerned.  Saudi and the Gulf states rulers  are terrified of revolution in their various kingdoms, and continue in various degrees to persecute their Shia minorities. None of them trust the Russians, they learned not to trust the Obama administration and are still uncertain about the Trump administration Over the last 5 to 7 years, possibly slightly longer, their collective attitude to Israel has been evolving. They  appear to have finally realised that they will not destroy Israel militarily, or economically. In fact they are quite keen to get their hands on what Israeli military technology the Israeli government will allow them to have They also have shown an appreciation for Israeli technology in general, and Israeli medical care The one thing preventing them from formal recognition of the state of Israel is the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians Over the last decade Gulf Arab support for the Palestinians has been dwindling Senior officials in the Saudi government have met their Israeli counterparts, in Riyadh, and several senior Saudis travelling in a more or less private capacity have visited Jerusalem.  There are increasing areas of common interest, and one major threat, namely Iran.

 

Israel has maintained its close historical ties with America, but has dramatically increased trade with both China and India The relationship with Russia is good at the moment, with Russian forces not interfering when Israeli aircraft attempt to prevent the handover of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces to Hezbollah. Netanyahu  has visited Putin several times, and no doubt will have made the Israeli position regarding Iranian forces in southern Syria crystal clear Obviously I was not present at any of those meetings, but I feel totally confident in saying the Israeli attitude can be summed up a ‘no way, José’.  Putin seemingly has a healthy respect for the IDF (Israel defence Force) and appears willing to avoid the possibility of any armed clashes between Israeli and Russian forces. Israel is keen to expand its ties with the Arab world, but not at the expense of its security Although on the face of it you would expect the Israeli government to be very pro-Trump, there is evidence to suggest Netanyahu advised Trump to not move the American embassy to Jerusalem, at least not for the moment He, Netanyahu, has resisted political pressure from his coalition partners to rapidly expand the settlements in the disputed territories, or to introduce what is termed Israeli Law in those parts of the disputed territories where Israel is responsible for Law & Order. As previously mentioned  Israel is expanding its trade ties, not only with China and India but with Asia in general. They are also expanding diplomatic efforts in Africa, and are meeting with some success.  There is military cooperation with Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula, and relations with Jordan whilst not exactly warm and fraternal, are on an even keel Relations between Israel and Turkey have recently come out of the freezer, but it is doubtful whether under Erdogan they can ever be more than warily cordial.

In conclusion:

In my opinion the Trump administration seems to be in a state of permanent crisis. I believe it’s a case of populism colliding head-on with the reality. In my opinion, the attack on the Syrian air force base was an attempt to look tough, but I’m afraid in military terms it has achieved nothing. Adequate warning was given to  allow the removal any useful military hardware from the immediate area, and indeed within 24 hours after the raid several Syrian aircraft took off from the airfield, presumably to conduct other bombing missions.  A warning shot across the bows is only a warning if there is a belief that further shots, on target, will be fired. The Trump administration has styled this raid as a one-off, so frankly all they have achieved is the non-coordination of American air raids against ISIS with Russian air defences. They have failed to destroy any significant component of Assad’s forces  and indeed have simply dramatically increased the chances of a clash between American and Russian units.  Putin will not have been deterred, indeed his adventurism might well have been encouraged.

 

Is the conspiracy theory correct, was the raid a complete sham? Probably not, but by any military measure it was yet another failure, and an example of shooting from the hip. Was it an attempt to turn attention away from Trump’s internal difficulties? Quite possibly. Trump may well have been moved by the sight of civilian casualties, but whilst tin-pot dictators might indulge in shooting from the hip to impress or daunt those who oppose them, the commander-in-chief of the most powerful nation on earth should know better.

1 comment for “Donald and the Conspiracists

  1. Richard Berg
    April 10, 2017 at 08:01

    Another brilliant political analysis, Peter. Thanks so much.

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