The Cold War seems revived and simmering, with potential for the first direct clash of air forces between the U.S. and Russia since Vietnam a half-century ago and more so Korea in the early Fifties.
The U.S. fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from two destroyers onto the Shayrat Air Base in western Syria last Thursday. This aerial attack reportedly destroyed 20 Russian-built Syrian Mig-23 fighter jets, a warehouse, and radar but avoided the sarin gas stockpile to avoid poisoning people in the area.
The naval limited air strike from the eastern Mediterranean signals not only Syria but North Korea that it also could get attacked by the U.S. or allies over its own aggressions. This week, U.S. warships are heading toward the Korean Peninsula.
Show of force can deter and prevent having to use it. The U.S. military strike last Thursday — 77 days into Trump’s administration — warns several aggressive and rogue statues and their superpower backers that if they cross certain lines then the U.S. will retaliate with force and stronger action for any further offenses.
Gone are “days of walking all over the U.S., in eight years under Obama — knowing the U.S. will do nothing,” syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer said on Fox Monday.
Pres. Trump cited “progress in his talks with Chinese Pres. Xi Jinping in Florida last week, including as the air strike hit Syria. The U.S. hopes China prompts its ally North Korea to dismantle its hell-bent nuclear weapon and missile programs. North Korea mostly trades with economic superpower China. China said in February it will halt all coal imports from North Korea. China has punished South Korean companies, over allied missile defenses there.
North Korea’s nuclear threat spirals. The rogue communist nation recently tested missiles aimed at Japan, and longer-range ones. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said North Korea has made recent, “significant advances in delivery systems” such as fueling, for intercontinental missiles reaching the U.S. He said these systems get alarming once “perfected” — presumably prompting the U.S. to attack to take out that capability.
Dictator Kim Jong-un, 33, who reportedly aspires to take over South Korea and be King of Korea, is deemed crazy enough to start a mutually-destructive atomic war. Perhaps to avoid backing Kim into a corner, Tillerson said the main goal is not to change regimes in North Korea. But he vowed nations posing a “threat to others” can expect a punitive U.S. “response.”
Local congressman Mark Meadows (R-11th Dist.), a House Foreign Affairs Committee member, told The Tribune that “we’ve had discussions with some of the administration officials on North Korea. Their provocative matter in tone and action has everyone on higher alert. We go to bed worrying what their actions might lead to not today, but in the future. As for a pre-emptive strike, we want to make sure any military options on the table do not present a threat to the U.S.”
To Russia Without Love
Russia is on the diplomatic menu this week. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Moscow, to meet counterpart Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Those two met in mid-February, at the G20 economic summit. Lavrov is a downgrade. Tillerson was to meet with Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin.
But on Monday, Putin said “nyet” to that, in anger at the U.S. aerial strike last Thursday. Russia has been Syria’s main arms supplier and ally, since the Ba’ath Party clutched party in 1954.
Russia now vows to improve Syrian air defense against any further U.S. attack and even respond with “force.” Further, Russia suspended its pact with the U.S. to share Syrian airspace to fight ISIS Islamic extremist terrorists. Fighting ISIS together was the greatest common interest Trump had pointed to for the two superpowers.
More than ever the U.S. hopes to distance Putin from Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, for Russia to better contain Assad and prevent Assad’s forces from further gassing rebel citizens in a brutal, seven-year civil war that has claimed lives of an estimated 450,000 civilians.
Tillerson cited three chemical attacks by Syria in late March and early April as the final straw, prompting U.S. intervention starting with the air strike. Most notably, Syrians on April 4 struck the northern Syrian village of Khan Sheikhoun.
Video shows villagers there gasping for air, and foaming at the mouth — from what many conclude is the banned nerve agent sarin. That gas attack killed at least 85 people including 27 children and sickened hundreds, according to Turkish sources. Moscow officials claimed gas spread after bombs hit insurgents’ chemical weapons warehouse; allied sources dismiss this claim.
Pres. Trump told the world Thursday he is determined to squelch the “slaughter and bloodshed” in Syria. He lashed out at the “horrific” gassing. “Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered, in this very barbaric attack. No child of God shall ever suffer such horror.”
Assad, 51, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein before him faces U.S. might. Tillerson said he wants allies to back a “political process, that would lead to Assad leaving.” First up, though, is to “defeat ISIS within Syria, to stabilize the Syrian country, and to avoid further civil war.”
Going forward, many global analysts figure that to avoid greater U.S. intervention, Assad may cease using chemical weapons — but will persist with conventional warfare to thwart rebels, and remain in power. Conceivably, the U.S. might revert back to letting Assad stay in power or at least not rush his ouster, if he does not get out of hand again with chemical weapons and as a concession for renewing cooperation with Russia against ISIS forces in Syria.
Thus noted deal-maker Trump raises the specter of helping defeat Assad’s forces and ousting him — perhaps to better get Russia to fulfill its prior pledge to pressure Assad into abandoning chemical attacks. There could be an ultimatum that any more war crimes prompts U.S. intervention, and beyond periodic punitive strikes.
In the aerial attack Thursday, Russian jets were spared to avoid extra provocation of Russia. Sparing most of the air base made the attack less destructive and provocative, and more of a warning of wider military punishment if Syria continues gassing its citizens.
It backfired to let the air base stay operational. Merely two days later on Saturday, it was reportedly used to bomb again the village struck April 4 but with fewer casualties. This time, a residential neighborhood was hit with one fatality recorded.
There were no reports of poison gas. Still, it was a rebuke. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) called it an “‘F’ you” by Assad to Trump, that foolishly escalates tensions and dares further attack. The U.S. did not strike again militarily, as of press time.
Assad’s office called U.S. punitive air strikes “shortsightedness and political and military blindness to reality,” boasting stronger resolve to kill rebels anywhere in Syria.
The Pentagon calls it a “proportional strike.” Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said it was “fully justified,” and warned the U.S. is “prepared to do more.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on Fox News that Putin should realize “We’re coming in — get out of the way. Don’t try to stop us. Or we’ll roll over you, if you do.”
In rare bi-partisan unity, new Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said “making sure Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities that he will pay a price is the right thing to do.”
The president sounded forceful in resolve. “Tonight, I ordered a targeted, military strike of the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched,” Pres. Trump explained on television. “It is in the vital national security interest of the United States (which has 1,000 troops in Syria) to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons. There can be no dispute that Syria used chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the chemical weapons convention, and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council.”
He stressed that “years of continued attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically. As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen. And the region continues to de-stabilize — threatening the United States, and its allies.”
“What you did was amazing. What you did was a powerful
message of hope,” for Syrians, Syrian citizen Kassem Eid said on CNN Monday about Trump’s air strike. Eid survived a chemical attack in 2013. He urged stronger punishment.
Trump had previously regarded Assad’s reign as one to tolerate as a “political reality,” especially with Iraq-like uncertainty of what radical elements might replace an ousted dictator. But Trump did an about face, at least slapping Assad’s hand after seeing imagery of gas attack Syrian victims.
U.S. Rep. Meadows has said “we should help create a more humanitarian government” in Syria.
Tillerson blasted “Russia’s inability, to live up to its commitment” to get Assad to abide by chemical weapons agreements of 2013 in exchange for his remaining in power, ” Tillerson told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos Sunday. Syria, where Iraq’s Hussein reportedly hid his own WMD, had an estimated 1,000 tons of chemical weapons in ’13. Tillerson noted Russia’s role is in “securing chemical weapons, destroying chemical weapons, and continuing to monitor the situation.” Hinting at reports Russia knew of recent gas attacks, he said Russia was “complicit, or simply incompetent” in enforcement.
There are inquiries into whether Russians are assisting in chemical weapon attacks on Syrian dissidents. Russian jets are blamed for “scorched-earth” heavy bombings that even target schools and residences to weaken dissidents’ resolve.
Russians reportedly blasted the hospital where poison gas victims were treated, five hours after the chemical attack to cover up evidence of illegal chemical weapon use. On the disinformation front, Russia and Iran question if Syria actually used poisonous gas. Russia has intervened in the Syrian civil war since fall 2015, with air strikes on rebel groups and by supplying deep-penetrating bombs to destroy hospitals.