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Poking a tinderbox: What Donald Trump's change of heart on Syria could mean

In this image provided by the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) launches a tomahawk land attack missile in the Mediterranean Sea, Friday, April 7, 2017.
Image Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via AP
April 08, 2017 - 6:00 AM

NEW YORK - A famous man once said attacking Syria could start the Third World War, that it was a terrible idea, that it couldn't happen without a congressional vote, and that a president who did so might be inspired by the dark ulterior motive of goosing his listless poll numbers.

Who said all this? Why, Donald Trump, of course.

But that was back when he was a Barack Obama-bashing Twitter pundit and not the commander-in-chief, and for another five years he would give no indication of a change of heart as gas attacks rained and barrel bombs exploded upon Syrian civilians.

Until this week.

Trump said he was stirred to act by the sight of children killed by sarin gas. His retaliatory strike at a Syrian airfield received broad backing in Washington, although some lawmakers question its legality, some early Trump supporters are incredulous, and the Russians say they are livid.

Trump's team presented it as a targeted, careful move. To avoid starting an international war, the Russians were even given a heads up — allowing them to clear out the airfield before it was pulverized by American cruise missiles.

They also presented it as Trump being different from Barack Obama. More decisive. The last president set a red line at the use of chemical weapons, and then wavered. Trump, on the other hand, struck without even announcing a red line.

"This clearly indicates the president is willing to take decisive action when called for," Rex Tillerson said.

"President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line."

But what does Trump want now? Six years into the Syrian disaster, it's not clear what long-term objective Trump was trying to achieve beyond blasting a single airfield. The Syrian military has more than a dozen others — and even this single damaged one was back up and running Friday, hosting takeoffs, according to third-party observers.

It wasn't clear listening to Tillerson what the basic goal is. He appeared to indicate Thursday the U.S. wanted Bashar Assad ousted, then later in the day said there was no change in military posture regarding Syria.

That question of regime change is the most fundamental of all.

The director of George Washington University's Project on Middle East Political Science penned an opinion piece that looked ahead at four main questions that will be raised in the fallout of these strikes.

One: Will it affect the Syrian civil war? No, Marc Lynch wrote in the Washington Post. He called the strike on a single airbase one of the smallest military moves Trump could possibly have made.

"It is a symbolic action which has virtually no impact on the course of the long, complex Syrian civil war," he wrote.

His second question: Can Trump avoid mission creep? Lynch said people pushing for Assad's ouster will now be emboldened, and this could turn into a slippery slope toward full-scale war. It's what Obama feared. One war hawk in Congress, Lindsey Graham, suggested Friday that 5,000 or more U.S. combat troops be sent in.

His third question is whether Trump is now really a mainstream Republican on military matters. It appears so, Lynch said. That's infuriated some Trump supporters. His booster Ann Coulter tweeted Friday: "Trump campaigned on not getting involved in Mideast. Said it always helps our enemies and creates more refugees. Then he saw a picture on TV."

Fourth, Lynch asks: Can he contain the fallout?

Syria has proven to be a historically explosive tinderbox, and the Americans have just lobbed rockets at it. The fallout Lynch fears includes escalating a tit-for-tat with Russia; helping Islamist rebels regain ground; and triggering reprisals against U.S. troops in the region.

Already the six-year civil war has metastasized, spewing its malignant effects onto distant continents from its original spot in a precarious place: a spot bordering NATO Turkey on one side; Israel on the other; and war-prone Lebanon, already deluged with war refugees.

Then there's the Russia question.

The Assad government might be detested by vast swaths of its citizenry, drawn disproportionately from the minority Alawite sect that gained power under colonial France, and resented by Sunnis around the region — but it's always had a friend in Moscow.

It started in the 1950s after Bashar Assad's father emerged from a tiny mountain village to become the first member of his family to obtain a post-secondary education. He joined socialist causes in college, entered the air force, and went to the Soviet Union for an extended training session on flying MiG aircraft.

That early connection led to innumerable ties with Russia — commercial relationships, cultural exchanges, even intermarried families.

Russia's determination to protect its investment in Assad has been underscored by its repeated interventions in recent years: brokering deals, buying time, keeping the family in power as it clawed back from the brink of military defeat.

There was apparently a Russian contingent on the base targeted early Friday, the one the Pentagon says stored deadly sarin gas used by Assad. Now the U.S. says it's investigating whether Russians were complicit in the chemical attacks.

It's all happening with a new quasi-Cold War underway.

The Americans say they gave the Russians a head-up, to let them clear out ahead of the cruise missiles. Yet the Russians professed to being livid.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev bemoaned about Trump breaking his word to the American people, listening to Washington's foreign-policy establishment, and putting the U.S. in a dangerous place: "On the verge of military clashes with Russia."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2017
The Canadian Press

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