The U.S. administration of President Donald Trump has used cruise missiles to strike a Syrian air base over allegations that the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad attacked civilians with chemical weapons. One cannot help but wonder whether this will be a turning point in the perpetual civil war in Syria.
U.S. forces are fighting against the Islamic State (IS) militant group that is active in Syria and other areas, but this was the first time that Washington had directly attacked the Assad administration's military.
In 2013, allegations that the Assad government used chemical weapons were called into question. At the time, the U.S. administration of then President Barack Obama threatened to attack Syria, but chose not to do so in the end.
Trump has criticized the former president saying that the Obama administration's weak-kneed response served to aggravate the Syrian situation. As such, Trump swiftly responded to the latest Syrian situation by attacking the country's government forces in an apparent bid to give the international community the impression that his government is resolutely responding to the civil war.
The Trump government should have shown proof that the Assad administration had used chemical weapons before launching the missile attack. Since the Trump administration failed to do so, the attack could be viewed by some as a desperate attempt to prop up low approval ratings of the president.
In a speech he delivered after the latest incident, Trump called on all civilized countries to work to prevent killing and bloodsheds in Syria and eradicate terror. Such a statement is understandable.
Syria has become a lawless area where the humanitarian crisis is growing serious. Aided by Russian forces, the Assad administration has indiscriminately attacked civilians using bombs whose fragments get scattered around extensive areas.
The six-year civil war has claimed the lives of over 300,000 people. About 11 million people, or almost half of Syria's population, have reportedly been displaced in the country or overseas. Moreover, European countries have been flooded with an influx of Syrian refugees, which has fueled the populism of ultra-rightists who demand that immigrants be expelled.
It remains to be seen whether the United States will lay down its arms after the latest attack or continue attacking Syrian government forces until the Assad administration collapses. However, it is clear that the crisis in Syria cannot be brought under control unless the United States is serious about taking a stand and that a military campaign alone cannot lead to a solution.
If the United States is only satisfied with the latest attack and fails to commit itself to resolving the Syrian crisis, the situation would only worsen because the Assad government would take unfair advantage of the lack of U.S. enthusiasm about resolving the situation.
The United States and Russia should cooperate closely in efforts to end the civil war and pave the way for a political solution to the crisis. The United States, which has supported anti-government forces in Syria, should help integrate moderate and democratic forces within Syria, while Russia should persuade the Assad administration, which it supports, to create an environment for a smooth transfer of power.
It would be difficult to stabilize and democratize Syria if the Assad government, which has killed numerous citizens, were to stay in power. However, if the Assad administration were to be overthrown by force, it could fuel a fierce conflict within the country, mainly between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims.
If forces linked to Al Qaeda or the IS were to seize power, the Syrian crisis would further worsen, which could adversely affect the situation in Israel, a U.S. ally. The United States and other countries should draw a blue print of the post-Assad administration while recognizing the complexity of Syria, which is viewed as an "active fault" in the Middle East.
Russia and China have kept vetoing U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolutions regarding Syria. This is not irrelevant to the fact that these two countries have numerous Muslims in their respective territories. These two countries fear that a possible religious conflict that would be triggered by collapse of the Assad government could spread to their territories.
However, to prevent such a situation, it is important to consider how to ensure a smooth transfer of power from the Assad government. The previous Obama administration failed to take any effective measures to end the civil war, while Russia and China have continued to vote down UNSC resolutions regarding Syria by exercising their power of veto. In other words, major countries have stubbornly stuck to their positions and failed to take any effective measures to resolve the crisis. These countries should end such unproductive actions.
The United States attacked Syria while Chinese President Xi Jinping was visiting the U.S. By taking such lightning-fast action, President Trump apparently tried to demonstrate to the world that he is different from Obama. The U.S. president also appears to have suggested to his Chinese counterpart that the possibility cannot be ruled out that the United States will take military action against North Korea, although it is inappropriate to equally compare militarily vulnerable Syria and North Korea, which possesses nuclear weapons.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he "supports the resolve" of the United States not to allow the proliferation or use of chemical weapons. A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the need to "prevent the situation in Syria from getting worse and to protect this difficult political solution process." Both Abe and the spokesperson apparently kept the situation of North Korea in mind in making their respective comments.
Russia condemned the U.S. attack on Syria as "an act of aggression" against a sovereign state. However, Russia obviously does not want to get deeply involved in the Syrian situation, and is aware of the seriousness of the humanitarian crisis there.
Russia should consult with the United States from a comprehensive perspective in an effort to end the Syrian civil war, which is widely viewed as one of the worst tragedies in human history.