World·Analysis

U.S. allies in Middle East welcome Trump's missile launch

While countries throughout the Middle East try to figure out what’s next for the United States after last week’s missile strikes, some traditional allies welcome a return of American attention on their region, writes the CBC’s Middle East correspondent Derek Stoffel.

U.S. strikes against Syria worry Iran, with its regional interests now threatened

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter launches a cruise missile at targets in Syria on April 7, in this handout photo from the U.S. Navy. (U.S. Navy via Reuters)

When 59 American Tomahawk cruise missiles slammed down onto a government airbase in Syria late Thursday, some traditional American allies in the Middle East welcomed the strikes as a signal that the United States was once again paying attention to their region.

But the attack on the Shayrat airbase in Syria brought a swift and stern condemnation from Russia and Iran, two key players in the complex conflict in Syria, who worry that their interests could be threatened.

It remains unclear whether the missile attack, which constitutes the first direct American strike against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, is a one-off or the beginning of greater U.S. involvement in the complicated conflict that is Syria's war.

Militarily, the cruise missile strikes are likely to have little effect on Assad's ability to continue the war, now in its seventh year. The strikes destroyed about 20 Syrian warplanes, according U.S. defence officials. 

Battle damage assessment image of Shayrat Airfield, Syria, is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image, released by the Pentagon following the U.S. strikes on April 7. (DigitalGlobe)

Assad's forces have several other airbases from which aircraft can be deployed. In fact, on Saturday groups which monitor the conflict said airstrikes were reported in Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, the town where a chemical weapons attack on Tuesday left more than 80 people, including 27 children, dead.

A decision-making president

Much of the Middle East — and the world — was caught off guard by Trump's launch of the strikes, just two days after the president said he was deeply moved by images of Syrian children suffering from the chemical attack.

Some in the region see Trump's action as an attempt to prove himself to be the anti-Obama, a president who takes decisive action, compared to his predecessor who backed down on taking military action against the Syrian regime in 2013, following another and much deadlier chemical attack. 

"Trump bombed because Obama didn't," wrote Nahum Barnea in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

Obama's cautious approach to the Middle East, in a foreign policy marked by disengagement following the wars of George W. Bush, caused consternation in capitals throughout the region. Saudi Arabia and Israel warned that Iran's growing influence was going unchecked.

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a statement about missile strikes on a Syrian airfield, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Reuters)

While the Trump White House has flailed under the growing weight of questions about possible Russian involvement in last year's election, the president is now showing signs of success in one area Obama never did (or perhaps never wanted to), demonstrating that the United States takes the concerns of the Middle East seriously.

A warm White House welcome

President Trump heaped praise on two important leaders from the region last week, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and Jordan's King Abdullah II, when they separately visited the White House. 

Obama apparently never invited Sisi to the Oval Office, worried about the optics of a fireside photo op with a man many of his advisers viewed as yet another Middle East strongman who couldn't care less about human rights. 

Trump said a week ago that he is "very much behind" President Sisi, who he called a "fantastic guy" when they met last September during the presidential campaign.

While in Washington for his visit with Trump, King Abdullah took aim at Iran, the country that Obama worked hard to bring into the fold with his 2015 agreement to limit Tehran's nuclear program, all the while worrying the Sunni states in the region.

U.S. President Donald Trump greets Jordan's King Abdullah II following a joint news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on April 5. (Reuters)

The king warned that Iran is a "potential threat to the region," in an interview with the Washington Post, adding, "there is an attempt to forge a geographic link between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah/Lebanon."

The American strikes are something the Sunni camp has been waiting for, as it puts the Shia powers  — Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah — on notice that their actions will no longer go unchecked.

Keeping Iran in check

Donald Trump has called the Obama nuclear agreement with Iran "the worst deal ever negotiated." But in his first months in office, he's done nothing about it.

Besides sending a message to Assad that there are consequences for using chemical weapons, it appears Trump — through this military escalation — is also trying to roll back Iran's influence in the region.

By doing so, he's raised the expectation of U.S. allies, particularly Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the first world leaders to back Trump, just hours after the cruise missiles were launched from U.S. warships in the eastern Mediterranean. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on April 9, where he discussed the U.S. military action in Syria. (Reuters)

"Israel fully and unequivocally supports the president's decision and hopes the clear message will reverberate not only in Damascus but also in Tehran, Pyongyang and other places," Netanyahu said.

It's clear the Israeli leadership now feels the United States might take military action against Iran, should it develop a nuclear weapon.

But Trump's unpredictability could be a cause for concern for the Israelis on another key issue: peace with the Palestinians.

A tough spot for Israel?

The president said in February he wants to make "the ultimate deal" — something that has eluded his predecessors — and find a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

That could, however, put pressure on Netanyahu to make difficult compromises, such as limiting the growth of settlements on land the Palestinians want for the future state. 

"Trump has concrete plans for an Israeli-Palestinian arrangement and he is making big plans," wrote commentator Ben Caspit in Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper. "I assume that Jerusalem is sweating more than before."

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley delivers remarks on the situation in Syria at the Security Council meeting at UN headquarters in New York on April 7. (Reuters)

The next moves for the United States remain unclear, but the U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said Friday, "we are prepared to do more. But we hope that will not be necessary."

Haley signalled a complete U-turn in the Trump administration's approach to Syria on Sunday, when she told CNN: "we don't see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there." Previously, forcing Assad out was not an American priority. 

The American shift of focus to Assad and his forces, largely based in western Syria, now has some analysts worried the United States may become distracted in its efforts to defeat ISIS in their stronghold, in the eastern side of Syria.

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

CBC News Middle East correspondent

Derek Stoffel, CBC's World News Editor, is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.

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