Today’s meeting of the G-7 foreign ministers in Lucca, Italy had a dynamic that no one could have anticipated. The United States and the United Kingdom led a charge for the G-7 to declare that there can be no solution to the Syria crisis with Assad in power. They further tried (and failed) to line up their allies behind targeted sanctions against Russian military leaders for supporting Assad’s criminal regime.
Only days ago, the United States had announced that it no longer had any interest in overthrowing Assad. The Trump administration has signalled it was not interested in humanitarian intervention generally, and was edging toward the good relationship with Russia that President Trump had frequently promised during the campaign.
But after an alleged chemical attack by the Assad regime that killed 89 people in Syria’s Idlib province, all that appears to have changed. The Trump administration responded forcefully by attacking the offending Syrian airbase with 59 tomahawk cruise missiles. Trump officials backed up the attack by declaring an intention to protect innocents throughout the world and by launching repeated rhetorical salvos against Russian complicity in Syrian crimes or incompetence in preventing them.
The quick turnaround has induced the diplomatic equivalent of whiplash among America’s partners. Of course, there is general outrage against the Assad regime and great frustration with Russia for its action in Syria. But why, U.S. allies might wonder, did this specific attack turn around U.S. policy?
Assad has been committing war crimes in Syria for a fair amount of consistency for over five years. Chemical attacks have occurred sporadically, but more importantly thousands and thousands of innocents have died from other means. Trump himself decried the idea of intervening after a much more deadly chemical attack in Syria in 2013.
Yet suddenly, a few horrific pictures of “beautiful babies” have undone years of political positioning. This speaks to an American president who is either dangerously reactive to emotive photos or who is simply trying to distract domestic audiences from the early failures of his presidency. Either way, it will not inspire confidence from allies that investing in the Trump’s administration newfound missionary zeal against Assad and Russia will pay dividends. After all, what new horror will distract Trump next? Will he be Putin’s best friend again in ten more days?
Russia sanctions are expensive, politically and economically, for many G-7 allies particularly France and Italy. Britain, more bound to the United States by its Brexit decision, was quicker to fall in line. But the divides meant that the group could not make a decision on sanctions and instead called for an investigation into responsibility for the chemical attack. “Further study” is a time-honoured way of papering over differences and playing for time.
Regardless of how one feels about Syria or Russia, the roller-coaster of the last week has confirmed that the essence of Trump’s foreign policy is its capriciousness and unpredictability. Trump has no firm convictions on many foreign policy issues and no attachment to notions of consistency or coherence. He will go where his whims and the politics of the moment take him.
In the end, America ends up with a policy that reflects a weird amalgam of his mood, the latest headlines on cable news and the last advisor he talked to. Any effort to impose a coherent doctrine on, for example, Trump’s Syria policy is thus doomed to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. It will be a wild ride—all the allies can do is hang on for dear life.
This commentary was originally published in The Telegraph on 11th April 2017.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.