The debate about the Syrian chemical attack yesterday and President Trump’s comments during a news conference with the King of Jordan have led to speculation that the US might be readying an attack on Syria.
The speculation stems from the fact that Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said that if the UN Security Council fails to take action over the chemical attack the US might consider taking “unilateral action”, whilst President Trump himself made comments during the news conference that appeared to have the military option open.
Whilst in any international issue the possibility of unilateral military action by the US can never unfortunately be completely ruled out, on balance neither Nikki Haley’s comment nor President Trump’s comment seem to presage military action.
Nikki Haley’s comment was made during a debate in the UN Security Council about the setting up of an investigation to look into the details of the chemical attack. No one questions that such an investigation should take place. The draft Resolution prepared by the Western powers is – as with every Resolution the Western powers have proposed during the Syrian crisis – absurdly unbalanced, effectively blaming the Syrian government for the chemical attack before the investigation takes place. However even this Resolution concedes that an investigation is needed, especially after the relevant UN bodies have said that they cannot themselves say who was responsible for the chemical attack.
The Russians for their part have prepared their own draft Resolution which – far more neutrally – calls for an investigation.
It is difficult to avoid the impression that Nikki Haley’s comment was part of the game of bluff and counter bluff that nowadays regularly takes place in the UN Security Council. Specifically, she appears to have been trying to scare the Russians into agreeing to the Western draft Resolution and to drop their own.
The Russians are most unlikely to be intimidated by this kind of bluff, and having already ruled the West’s draft Resolution out they will almost certainly persist in rejecting it.
As for Donald Trump’s comments, as the entirety of his words during the press conference show, he did not directly threaten unilateral US military action in Syria but made his comments when pressed to say by a journalist whether or not he was considering military action. He declined to give any concrete answer one way or the other, but the clear impression from his comments is that he is not contemplating it.
Overall the impression President Trump’s news conference gave was that Donald Trump’s focus remains overwhelmingly on fighting ISIS – he said far more about that than about the chemical attack in Syria – and that though he does not want to give more ammunition to his domestic opponents by denying the Syrian government’s responsibility for the chemical attack, he tried to shift ultimate responsibility for the likely lack of a US reaction away from himself onto President Obama.
Ultimately the same factors that deterred a US military attack to lift the Syrian army’s siege of eastern Aleppo last autumn remain in place today. The Russian air defence system which was installed in Syria with its S400 and S300 missiles is still there. The US military in the autumn made absolutely clear their deep reluctance to engage this system, and nothing since has happened to change their views.
President Trump more than any other President in recent years looks to the US military for political support. It is even less credible that he will go against their advice than President Obama did.
In light of all this a unilateral US attack on the Syrian military on anything like the necessary scale to affect the course of the Syrian war is extremely unlikely.