The American missile strike and the resulting diplomatic spat with Russia and its allies signal, at least for now, the end to Donald Trump’s agenda to improve relations with the Russian Federation. Having come to power praising Putin and Assad, as well as promising isolationism, but at the same time to roll back ISIS, Donald Trump’s capitulation to America’s geopolitical interests is probably best explained by the triumph of institutionalism and geopolitics over personal ambitions. The end of the brief rapprochement between Trump and Putin also begs the question of what will happen to the American-Russian relationship, the future of the war in Syria, and what effects it may have on Putin’s influence on the upcoming European elections.
Donald Trump’s ultimate decision to strike at Syrian airfields after the alleged chemical attack, and the angry response from Russia and its allies, finally exposed the impossibilities and contradictions of Trump’s election platform. Analysists have long warned of the impossibility of Trump’s promise to fight ISIS, while simultaneously remaining aloof in Syrian affairs. Neither can Donald Trump extract America from the geopolitical quagmire, instead, the missile strike signalled the first, publically acknowledged, and direct American involvement in the Syrian Civil War. Instead of pulling the US from the Middle East and the dilemmas associated with the region’s unrest, the US is now one step closer. However, given that it is likely that by this time, the majority of Syria’s “moderate” forces have already been defeated, splintered, or radicalized, therefore, whether Donald Trump’s missile strike makes strategic sense is debatable. If Donald Trump wants to show he is tougher than Obama by taking direct action, short of boots on the ground, it is likely too late for missile strikes to be able to swing the tide of war in favour of the “moderate” forces.
Trump’s about-turn also launches speculation on how that would influence Putin’s future influence on elections in European countries, and if elected, whether these populist candidates will support Putin’s agenda. It is clear that, at best, Putin’s influence over American policy is limited. Trump has caused substantial chaos and confusion when he came to power. However, ultimately, Trump’s status as an outsider and his limited influence over America’s establishment, as well as the institutional checks in place, places an effective limit on the extent that the president can change America’s foreign policy outlook by himself. These checks and balances would also apply to other Western democratic countries. Thus, these populists would have to bow to public pressure. Europe is even closer to the epicentre of the Syrian Refugee Crisis, and it is unlikely that the European population would support their countries actively backing Assad in order to restore peace in Syria. Other than causing temporary chaos, Trump’s behaviour also casts doubt on whether Putin’s strategy of funding populist right-wing politicians can have much of an influence on their countries’ long-term strategies.
With that said, what should be done with Syria is still unanswered. As demonstrated in Libya, and now by Russia in Syria, without significant numbers of capable ground forces being deployed, purely aerial or missile strikes are unlikely to be decisive. With Assad seemingly winning the civil war due to the Russian and Iranian backing, Trump’s strike is at best symbolic, at worst self-damaging. If the publically visible American actions in Syria are haphazard, such as no follow-up actions after the missile strike, it will further damage America’s credibility in the region. While Trump may believe that shrouding himself in an air of mystery and unpredictability would give him more freedom of action, this unpredictability may ultimately harm American interests because no one can be sure what America’s interests are, therefore, they may think twice about risking political and economic capital to cooperate with such an unstable administration.
As well, there is a difference between appearing unpredictable and policy confusion. Given Trump’s recent string of failures to push through domestic legislation, to build coalitions, and his roundabout turn in Asia, it appears that it is more confusion rather than being part of a masterplan.