John Armstrong: Trump's u-turn on Syria better than Obama's dithering


Apocalypse Soon? Well, hardly.

The notion that last week's unilateral attack by the United States on a Syrian airbase could in hindsight turn out to be the opening shots of World War Three is not just silly.

It is ludicrous. And that's putting it mildly.

A fair chunk of the speculative talk about world war is the product of the fevered imaginations of tabloid news editors like those on The Sun, Rupert Murdoch's British-based contribution to the advancement of Western civilisation.

Under the headline of "Countdown to Doomsday", the newspaper has been offering some not especially useful advice to its readers should an intercontinental ballistic missile land in their back garden.

That the media feel they can manufacture cheap laughs from the horror of nuclear war is a pretty accurate indicator that Armageddon is not imminent.

Sure, those of a nervous disposition might be excused for shuddering aplenty as Washington-Moscow relations plumb new depths.

Source: 1 NEWS

There is a long way to go before they hit rock bottom, however.

One legacy of the Cold War is that the two superpowers have long experience of the limits of each other's patience. That provides a vital safety-valve. It allows allows the two nuclear powers to be pretty frank with one another without necessarily inviting repercussions.

That was very apparent in the overnight developments in the current slanging-match over Russia's propping up of the morally bankrupt regime of Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

Trump declared that relations with Moscow had hit a new low; his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned there was now a low level of trust infecting those relations.

Such observations ignored the huge symbolism of Putin agreeing to meet Tillerson during the latter's Moscow visit.

Trump's claim that relations were now at a low point is debatable. They were hardly crash hot after Putin effectively annexed Crimea and stoked ethnic-fuelled acrimony in east Ukraine.

What is not in question is that the Syrian brouhaha is small beer when placed alongside potentially cataclysmic Cold War confrontations such as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

What is disturbing in the current geopolitical context is that Putin's muscle-flexing is fast becoming the norm rather than the exception.

His language and demeanour convey a simple message: Don't mess with the Russian Bear.

The pertinent question is just how long the bear will need to be fed the lives of innocents such as the victims of Assad's latest and perhaps most brazen resort to chemical weapons.

It is a question Putin is hardly likely to answer. What matters is that America at last has a president who is not afraid to ask it.

Trump may have shifted his position on the bombing of Syria and the need for regime change in Damascus by a full 180 degrees.

But that is far more preferable than the vacillation and dithering displayed by Barrack Obama during his tenure in the White House.

That is a sad and rather pathetic tale of how Assad blithely ignored warnings about using chemical weapons and failed to fulfil a Russian-brokered deal to dismantle Syria’s nerve gas arsenal.

This month's Sarin-laced attack on civilians in rebel-held territory was the final insult. It was proof that Assad did not give a toss about being caught using chemical weapons.

When caught out, Assad has been able to hide behind Putin, safe in the knowledge that the Americans were too gutless to confront the Russian President.

That all changed with last week's cruise missile strike.

It delivered a very firm message to Assad that committing a war crime would no longer go unpunished.

Well might he try to hide behind Putin. But Washington was no longer concerned about treading on Russian toes in coming after him.

All of a sudden, the Americans are calling the shots. Putin is left firing blanks.

Trump knows that Putin is not going to collapse in his country's relationship with the United States just to save Syria's dictator from what will sooner or later be his day of reckoning.

Whether or not Assad was responsible for the bombing, the international outcry over the killings deems him as complicit.

Likewise Putin is seen as complicit by association. Assad's strategic gaffe gifted the moral high ground to Trump.

It enabled him to justify the missile strike on the basis that upholding international law demands that those guilty of war crimes face consequences.

That Putin is very much on the defensive is evident in his request for a United Nations inquiry to pin down who was responsible for the latest nerve gas atrocity.

Is this the same Vladimir Putin who blocked investigators from international agencies from getting to the bottom of who was behind the downing of a Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine in 2015?

Capping all this is Putin's game of divide-and-rule, which had him wooing Trump in order to diminish the influence of key Washington agencies such as the State Department and the Pentagon, has fizzled out.

The Trump administration has been a veritable Tower of Babel. But on Syria, it is singing in unison.

The domestic pay-off for Trump is polls showing majority approval of his handling of the crisis.

Trump's critics have been silenced, if only temporarily.

Their attempt to portray the missile strike as proof that he is an unrequited warmonger who pulled the trigger at the first available opportunity was blown out of the water by no lesser a figure than Hillary Clinton.

She pulled the rug from under those detractors by calling for the very kind of cruise-missile attack which Trump delivered a few hours later.

Trump-haters can probably rely on Trump soon enough finding a new banana-skin on which to slide. But on the question of what to do about Syria, he has certainly found his feet.

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