By one single act of pure evil Bashar Al-Assad has rescued the Trump presidency. Since his inauguration in January 2017, Donald Trump has struggled to get his administration up and running. At the heart of his troubles is the ongoing FBI investigation into possible collusion between his election campaign team and the Russian government.
The counterintelligence investigations into Trump-Russian links which began as early July 2016 have cast a dark shadow over the young administration. Within less than a month of taking office Trump lost his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, after he tried to cover up contacts with Russian officials during the election campaign. In recent days, he suffered a crippling blow when his chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, was sacked from the National Security Council and replaced by security officials.
There is no smoke without fire and seems only a matter of time before the truth about Trump-Russian relations will come to light.
Meanwhile the daily drip feed of information; the unexpected resignations of officials; and the failure of Trump to win Congressional approval for his big election promises notably his “Muslim ban” and the repeal of Obamacare health policy, have altogether shattered his job approval ratings.
At the end of March, just days before Al-Assad’s chemical attack, Trump’s approval rating was 35 per cent, the lowest of any president in his first year. He must have read the writing on the wall; that if this relentless decline in popularity continues, his hopes for a second term are virtually nil. Only two other presidents, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, had their approval ratings fall into the 20s during their first term. Neither was reelected for a second term.
By gassing the civilian population of Khan Sheikhoun, Al-Assad had effectually thrown a lifeline to Trump. And as any drowning man would do, he grabbed it with both hands.
Syria provided the perfect theatre for him to stage a show of strength outside of the US. He obviously knew that if he could give the Russian protégé a bloody nose that would deflect concerns about his links with Russia, America’s erstwhile enemy. Indeed, if the Russians were to now release whatever salacious “secrets” they hold about him he could always claim this is the fake news of the enemy.
Al-Assad had clearly misread the recent statements by White House officials that their priority was Daesh. He foolishly took this to mean he could act with impunity. Moreover, he misinterpreted Trump’s isolationist rhetoric and sayings that he wants to be the president of America, not president of the world.
The fatal miscalculation that Al-Assad made was that he thought he had a license to use the chemical weapons he still has stockpiled, in defiance of the international community. But when you commit a crime against humanity as ghastly as the sarin attack, there had to be consequences, even from a notorious isolationist as Trump.
Despite subsequent threats that America would repeat the missile strikes on Syria, if needed, there is nothing on the horizon to suggest that Washington or its allies want a showdown with the Russians. Its chief ally Britain has said this is not the start of a military campaign. This week’s attack was only intended to be a deterrent; hence the limited strike on the air base from where the planes carrying the deadly gas took off. Surely if Trump wanted to escalate he would have extended his missile strikes to include Al-Assad’s palaces in Damascus.
Politically speaking, Donald Trump was, until the end of March, a dead man walking. Pursued by scandals relating to Russia and hounded by what he calls the “evil media”, his administration seemed set on a course of implosion. That was until Bashar Al-Assad came to his rescue by attacking Khan Sheikhoun with chemical weapons.
If nothing else, Donald Trump has the natural instincts of a survivor. In this instance he may well have learnt a crucial lesson from Machiavelli; that a lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. So one must therefore be a fox to recognise the traps, and be a lion to frighten the wolves.
For now, he has avoided the Russian traps and have kept the media wolves at bay. But only just and for how long. Time will tell. The FBI investigations into his links with Russia and now Russia’s involvement in the chemical attack may, sooner or later, prove to be his nemesis. If, however, foreign leaders like Al-Assad are foolish enough to make his task of survival easy he will not turn his back on the opportunity.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.