The world’s top three powers are pursuing their brands of muscular diplomacy that can only end up creating flashpoints round the globe. The Syria-Iraq theatre and the Korean peninsula are two such regions over which war clouds are beginning to gather. Expectedly, US President Dold Trump is in the eye of the storm over unleashing a cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase on April 6. The US action came after a horrendous sarin gas attack in Syria’s Idlib province, allegedly carried out by President Bashar Assad’s forces from the al-Shayrat airbase. After over 80 civilians in the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun died from this chemical attack, President Trump ordered the missile strike on behalf of forces “representing the world”. Assad’s backers Russia and Iran were quick to take offence, threatening retaliatory strikes if “red lines” are crossed again. Reportedly, there were Russian soldiers in the airbase when it was targeted by US warships. Russian President Vladimir Putin termed the development “a significant blow” to the Russian-American relationship; Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was more strident in terming it an action that has put “Moscow and Washington on the verge of a military clash”. So, has Trump given up his soft line on Putin, or are both leaders putting on a show of strength to appeal to their core domestic support bases? The irony was not lost on President Trump’s opponents, with Hilary Clinton calling him “hypocritical” for mourning the deaths of Syrian children while barring Syrian refugees from entering the US. Other detractors are accusing Trump of acting out of a desire to be seen as strong, decisively doing what his predecessor Barack Obama could not do in eight years, particularly in 2013 when a sarin-gas attack killed about 1,400 people in Syria. Washington is now said to be preparing to confront the Russian leadership for its support to Assad’s dictatorial regime, which has seen a bloody six-year-old civil year that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. In particular, Russia is likely to be targeted for failing to enforce a 2013 pact it brokered with Syria to elimite chemical weapons.
But will not the Trump administration’s collision course with Moscow over Assad weaken the war against dreaded ISIS in Syria and Iraq? Or will Washington be fighting on two fronts in the Middle East, against both Assad’s forces and the ISIS? US ambassador to the United tions Nikki Haley believes her country is capable of fighting on three fronts to meet its priorities — firstly, to destroy the ISIS; secondly, to ensure a peaceful Syria without Assad lording over it; and thirdly, to counter the growing Iranian influence. Interestingly, Washington has begun taking a hardline to Tehran, reversing the Obama administration’s policy of rapprochement through a nuclear deal. It is clear that Iran’s emergence as major power broker in the Middle East is against US interests in the region, considering that the present Iraqi government and the Assad regime are both Shiite and enjoy Tehran’s blessings. If President Trump’s action against Syria remains a one-off warning not to use chemical weapons, the status-quo might still remain. But if Assad escalates the civil war further, the situation could go out of hand. The tacit understanding between US and Russian forces in the Syrian theatre may break down totally, with dangerous implications. It would also give the embattled ISIS valuable breathing space. Presently, the ISIS is fighting desperate rearguard battles to hold on to its last two strongholds — against US-backed Arab and Kurdish militias at Raqqa in Syria, and US-backed Iraqi forces at Mosul in Iraq. It would be a huge setback if US, Russia, Syria and Iran, all fighting the toxic ISIS influence, end up neutralising each other to a standstill. Meanwhile, in another significant move, the Trump administration has moved a nuclear super-carrier along with a strike force close to North Korea’s shorea. This is being seen as Washington’s show of strength against provocations by the Kim-Jong-un regime that has carried out several ballistic missile tests recently. President Trump has also sounded a clear warning to Chinese president Xi Jinping that if Beijing does not rein back Pyongyang, the US is prepared to unilaterally tackle North Korea’s nuclear threats. After all, Pyongyang has made a mockery of UN sanctions through closely linked North Korean and Chinese companies. It remains to be seen how Beijing deals with an assertive US presence close to its theatre of influence, considering the inexorable Chinese build-up in the South Chi Sea region. This will have implications for India as well, facing as it does increasing Chinese pressure on its northern border.