By Aidan Clarke, Contributor
The 24-hour news cycle media has made much of President Trump’s Tomahawk cruise missile strike against the Assad regime, following the regime’s use of sarin gas against innocent civilians in the Syrian Idlib province. The rhetoric of the news media has incited fears of a third world war, and the echo chamber of social media has only exacerbated these fears.
This suggestion is entirely ludicrous. From the beginning, this strike and the reaction that followed were nothing more than two great powers “going through the motions.” The Trump Administration launched the strikes because it has been tested and probed by the revisionist powers of Iran, North Korea and China, all within only 4 months of Trump taking office. This was the administration’s opportunity to stamp their foot on an issue, and they took it. The message was clear: “The United States is still the global hegemon, and if you violate our norms, we will take action against you.”
Furthermore, it is no coincidence that this strike was undertaken while Xi Jinping was visiting President Trump at Mar A Lago. For the Chinese, as for the Iranians, the Russians and the North Koreans, this strike serves as a reminder that (for now) the U.S. still sets the rules of international politics. Lenin described the approach to probing a great power as “Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, withdraw.” Needless to say, Assad has met steel.
Russia would have known that the moment the chemical weapons were used the U.S. was going to take action. This is why they scrambled to work with the Assad regime to eliminate its chemical weapons in 2013, even after President Obama failed to back his promise of a “red line.” Russia also had its hands tied politically, and couldn’t be shown to acquiesce before this show of American power. Therefore, they dispatched a small frigate to the region and conducted various diplomatic exercises designed to send a message back to the U.S.
Now, I should stress that great powers often misjudge these actions. The Germans and Russians did it in 1914, to horrifying effect. The U.S. and the USSR nearly did it in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, this recent brief clash of interests has had none of the hallmarks of a misperception.
If the Russians had an issue with the strike, they could have, and would have, stopped it. In Syria, and at the airfield that was hit by the strike, the Russians have S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. They claim these battle-proven systems are the most advanced in the world, and undoubtedly have the ability to shoot down cruise missiles. These would have been an easy way to stop the American action, but the Russians did not use them.
Vladimir Putin is extremely dangerous, but he is a shrewd and prudent politician and is not likely to gamble the safety of his state over the Assad regime. President Trump’s foreign policy may be misguided, but this reactionary strike has not put us on the brink of nuclear war.