Bombs over Syria and the Changing Global Power Dynamics

trump xi

The Story – A Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

During the afternoon of April 4, news broke in North America of an apparent chemical agent attack in Idlib, Syria. Within hours, news agencies and social media streamed horrific videos of adults and children gasping for air and being rushed to hospitals for treatment, where they were sprayed head-to-toe with hoses to wash off toxic residues. All told, over 70 people lost their lives in the worst chemical weapons attack since the infamous 2013 massacre in Ghouta, Syria, that killed 1,400 people. While the Syrian and Russian governments claimed that the sarin gas was released from a rebel-held stockhold, most of the international community quickly assigned blame to the Assad regime, which supposedly had turned over its chemical weapons stockpile in a U.S.-Russia agreement following the 2013 attack.

The attack last week posed a particularly vexing challenge for U.S. President Donald Trump. On the one hand, he repeatedly mocked former President Obama’s perceived weakness in dealing with the Syrian crisis during the presidential campaign, and in his first few days in office. A particularly favourite Trump trope was Obama’s decision to cancel a military response to the 2013 attack, despite an earlier proclamation that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a “red line”. On the other hand, Trump had also campaigned on a promise to extricate the United States from complex global quagmires, including Syria. A military response to this latest attack would certainly move in the opposite direction of this objective, particularly given the unpredictability of responses from Russia, the Assad regime, and myriad other actors with stakes in the conflict.

Heightening the drama, President Trump was scheduled to meet for the first time with Chinese President Xi Jinping, just two days after the strike. The looming summit was already generating a good deal of debate and anxiety in the United States over whether Trump was sufficiently prepared to negotiate with Xi and his clear ambitions to increase China’s influence in global affairs. Now, the U.S. President confronted not only an in-person tête-à-tête with the leader of a rising global power, but also his most serious foreign policy crisis to date, with uncertain consequences on the fragile U.S. relationship with another military power in Russia.


A Tomahawk missile – the type of weapon used by the United States in response to the Ghouta chemical attack.

Ultimately, the Trump administration decided to respond militarily to the chemical weapons attack in an almost cinematic scene; as Presidents Xi and Trump were concluding dinner on the first night of their summit, the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian air base in Shayrat. The immediate and long-term consequences of the U.S. strike are still unfolding, but the timing and responses to this crisis are already yielding insights into the changing power dynamics amongst arguably the three most influential state actors in today’s world – the United States, Russia, and China.

Key Quote

What did we want Assad to do next? What did we hope Russia would do? There is no apparent link to any strategy. It’s the unpredictability of the actions, I think, that mosts upsets the apple cart. It drives foreign leaders crazy.” –  Gordon Adams, professor of U.S. foreign policy at American University, and former national security official in the Clinton Administration

Context – Three Pathways to Global Power

The search for power has shaped international relations across eras and regions. The ability to influence others’ behaviour in order to achieve one’s political, economic, and cultural objectives is a consuming objective of foreign policy, particularly for countries that consider themselves “great powers”.

The conflicts and international relations of the post-financial crisis era seem to indicate that three countries in particular possess at least some power to shape global events and patterns – the United States, Russia and China. Interestingly, they now each seem to be pursuing power by different means, as illustrated by the events of the past two weeks. Here are the new doctrines emerging in each country:

  • The United States – Low-Cost Power through Unpredictability. It’s no secret that the Trump Administration has been understaffed and often in disarray since taking office in January. Indeed, Trump’s decision to bomb Syria contradicts his campaign rhetoric to disentangle the United States from foreign wars, leading some observers to interpret this action as a haphazard response to a complex conflict. While that may be true, the practice of isolated shows of force to long-lasting conflicts is not unique in American history. In April of 1986, then-President Reagan bombed Libya in response to a terrorist attack in Germany that was linked to Qaddafi’s regime. But Qaddafi’s government had financed terrorist networks well back into the 1970s, and he continued to hold power until the Arab Spring revolts of 2011. In August of 1998, President Clinton ordered a missile strike on al-Qaeda camps in Sudan and Afghanistan in response to attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. No further military action was pursued until after the 9/11 attacks.

In each of these cases, U.S. presidents sought to exert power on a perceived enemy through a relatively limited military intervention – one that would be far less costly than sending in U.S. troops into a protracted war. While the effectiveness of these strikes is debatable, they at least served U.S. power by preserving a sense of unpredictability as to when and how it would respond militarily to adverse events. This represents a particularly tempting way for U.S. leaders to exert power in the aftermath of protracted conflicts that required considerable human and financial investments, e.g. the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars. To the extent that President Trump has a cohesive doctrine, this seems to resonate with him, as evidenced by his quote in the aftermath of last week’s chemical attack: “I don’t like to say where I’m going and what I’m doing.”

  • Russia – Low-Cost Power through Proxies. While the United States under President Trump pursues power through unpredictability, Russia under President Vladimir Putin seems to be taking a more committed approach to influencing events in regions of strategic importance. In Syria, Russian special forces were first deployed in September 2015, and the country’s ongoing military presence has increased in scope since then. And in Ukraine, it has been widely reported that Russia is supporting pro-Putin rebels in the eastern part of the country, as well as massing over 40,000 troops on the border in a show of force last year.
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Pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Source: CBC News

While Putin’s Russia seems to be willing to put more “skin in the game” than Trump’s America, it is still pursuing a relatively low-cost approach to power in global hotspots. That is, much of the influence it wields is done through proxies with rebel groups (in Ukraine) or government allies (in Syria), backed by the threat of committing more troops if it doesn’t achieve its aims. One estimate pegs the actual number of Russian troops in Syria at around 4,000 – contrast this with the more than 150,000 American troops in Iraq at the height of the U.S. “surge” in 2008. Furthermore, Russia’s major foreign policy engagements under Putin appear to be reactions to unfolding crises (e.g. the Ukrainian and Syrian civil wars), rather than a proactive, cohesive set of engagements determined by Moscow. For a country with global power ambitions, but a relatively weak economy that is heavily based on oil exports, these types of committed but inexpensive proxy engagements seem to be its most promising pathway to power.

  • China – Deliberate Power through Institutions. While the United States and Russia jockey for influence in Syria, China appears to be sitting on the sidelines for this war. But in many other respects, it is proactively reshaping the fundamental institutions of global trade and international relations. Last year, President Xi launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a $100 billion international bank that will finance development projects throughout the continent. It is largely seen as a way for China to shape crucial decisions on big international projects without having to go through the Western-controlled World Bank. Meanwhile, China is developing a “One Belt, One Road” initiative, in which the country has committed nearly $1 trillion to build highways, railways, and other infrastructure to facilitate trade among the 60 countries making up the historical “Silk Road” of the Eurasian continent. All this is accompanied by a marked increase in Chinese foreign direct investment, especially compared to the stagnating and/or declining investment from the United States and Russia since 2010:


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Foreign Direct Investment (in billions of US dollars) of the United States, China, and Russia from 2007-2015. Source: World Bank data.

China’s approach to securing global power appears to be more methodical, proactive, and especially focused on wielding economic influence – which makes sense, given its tremendous economic rise over the past three decades. In many respects, it is emulating the United States in the immediate post-World War II period, in which it led the establishment of global economic institutions e.g. the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and truly became a global superpower. However, there are some clouds on the horizon for China’s power ambitions, particularly with growing unrest on the Korean Peninsula, and continued tensions over the South China Sea.

In the coming weeks, months, and years, it will be interesting to track the pathways chosen by each of these countries with great power ambitions. Can America’s power-by-unpredictability; Russia’s low-cost proxy strategy; and China’s methodical, institution-based paths to power all co-exist? What could be the consequences if each of these pathways are pursued to their logical extent? I welcome any thoughts in the comments below.

Further Reading




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