Monday, 1 May 2017

President Trump attacks Syria - a worsening crisis.

          With just under 100 days into his presidency, last week was one of the crucial weeks for President Donald Trump. The President is always under a watch. However, for President Trump, the case is different. Being a political outsider and a newbie to Washington D.C, his actions and behavior are not just under the watch from media houses but he is under a constant vigilance that keeps a tab on his policies and agendas. Political analysts, policy pundits, foreign leaders, military experts, intelligence agencies, the Democrats, the Republicans and the Independents are all busy to judge the gravity with which he is swaying his administration. Last week has offered us some real insights so as to how his administration functions. It all started with the reports from Khan Sheikhoun a city from the Idlib province of Syria. Apparently, a chemical weapon attack killed more than 80 individuals. The toll was rising and amongst them were a worrying number of 20+ children. The unconfirmed video reports and images that floated up from the city were horrible. It sent shockwaves around the world as we all saw the dead bodies piled up and lying restlessly – without any visible injuries. The count of individuals suffocating, fuming acids out of their mouth and struggling for life was more than 200. Water was showered upon them to dilute the intensity of the nerve agent used – a desperate effort to save every life. With the first conclusions, it was evident that a chemical weapon hit the town. Visual medical diagnosis and symptoms hinted possible use of a nerve agent. It had had to be ‘Sarin’. With the use of Sarin, Assad regime was the prime suspect. The United States and Saudi Arabia demanded a probe. Russia and Iran - the nations that back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime blamed opposition rebels for the attack. A new version of finger pointing steamed up. By then, it was clear that President Trump would act upon this. The White House sources and military experts anonymously indicated a possible attack. Later in the week, U.S fleets floating in the Mediterranean Sea launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Al-Shayrat base in central Syria. The White House later reported that President Trump during his daily intelligence briefing was unable to control his feelings when he saw the images from Khan Sheikhoun and called for an attack on the Syrian army base from where the chemical weapons were fired. The firing of Tomahawk missiles was the first and official attack by the United States in the 6-year old Syrian crisis. This attack clearly indicates a policy shift from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.

Back in August 2013, the Assad regime fired chemical weapons on the outskirts of capital Damascus killing more than 1400 individuals. The onus was then on President Barack Obama who had warned Assad not to cross the ‘red-line’ during his famous appearance on South Lawns at the White House in 2012. Nevertheless, President Obama refused to sway and instead decided to wait. A worsened Syrian crisis is the outcome of President Obama’s reluctance to act on Assad. It was just 5 days before the recent chemical attack; U.S Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley declared that toppling Assad was not the Trump administration’s ‘priority’. Reportedly, Assad carried out this act for the cushion he saw in Haley’s statement. The Al-Shayrat army base had enough of the Russian planes and troops. The United States alerted the Russians before the attack. The missiles were able to end lives of just 15 Syrian soldiers but the impact it caused is enormous! The Al-Shayrat base is a strategically important base that is used by the Assad regime as a central point when it deals with the rebels in western, northwestern and central Syria. Russia, Iran, and Assad have criticized and are calling for retaliation against this ‘aggressive and international law-violating’ attack. The U.S Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his first official visit to Moscow met Russian President Vladimir Putin amid these tensions. Syria was something they have reportedly discussed. On priority.

However, after the missile attack, Trump administration officials have offered distinct and contradictory views about Syria. Nikki Haley now says that ‘Assad must go’. Where-as, Rex Tillerson who has found a voice after 60 days of his nomination has quoted publicly that ‘the Syrian citizens will and should determine the fate of Assad’. With over 500 thousand Syrians killed brutally, over a million injured and an equal number of citizens dispatched from their homes, it is difficult to fathom who all will vote and decide Assad’s fate. These contradictory statements clearly indicate an un-orchestrated way with which the Trump government is approaching issues at-hand. Trump himself when he was the presidential candidate praised Assad. ‘Assad is bad and he must go but he is fighting with ISIS and he is doing well’ is what Trump said during one of the presidential debates back in 2016. His administration, now approaching an end of its 100 days honeymoon period lacks a clear policy on Syria. Moreover, the Trump government does not have any clear policy defined for North Korea. President Trump apparently gave a final go to strike Al-Shayrat base when he was stationed at ‘Mar-a-Lago’ - his private mansion in Florida just before he met Xi Jinping – President of the People’s Republic of China. By this, pundits now say that President Trump passed on a ‘silent message’ to President Jinping that he should control and sensitize North Korea. Back in 1998 when al-Qaeda bombed the U.S embassies in Tanzania and Kenya which killed more than 200 individuals, the then President Bill Clinton fired 73 Tomahawk missiles on al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan and gave a ‘silent message’ to al-Qaeda central leadership. Presuming al-Qaeda was back in the box was wrong and it attacked America on 11 September 2001. Trump administration with critical issues at hand has been able to portray its influence limited just to ‘silent messages’.  The Al-Shayrat attack in isolation was necessary and has been impactful. Nevertheless, President Trump, going ahead will have to prove his shrewdness with right decisions at right times and will have to carve his clear and long-term policies in these difficult times.

For the U.S, it was necessary to grab an opportunity in this Syrian crisis, which is in its disastrous 7th year. Obama’s reluctance to act had compelled U.S to play on a back-foot. President Trump, with this attack, has been bold enough to display that he is willing to act independently and go an extra mile. With this move, he has indicated that he can act freely and take decisions about Syria out of the scope that he has inherited from President Obama. However, he will have to carve out a policy that will rise beyond a single ‘surgical strike’. There is no such policy right now. Nikki Haley has said that the ‘U.S will not hesitate to bomb more in Syria’. She and her boss will have to back up words with actions. Finishing off ISIS and Tahrir al-Sham will definitely demand nothing but their action. With this attack, Trump has clearly stated that Assad should not take him for granted and his actions down the line will be under many microscopes. However, public execution, siege, mass killings, bombing schools, hospitals, and exploiting war-situations have been the cornerstones of Assad regime. Controlling his behavior will demand military action and diplomacy in a sustained and effortless manner. In the recent past, the political vacuum has stirred and rippled a greater level of extremism in the Middle East. The Syrian crisis cannot be resolved just with the military option. Moreover, toppling Assad with no alternative option that can replace him effectively is a risky affair. It may end up expanding the extremism. ISIS is a downfall but a political vacuum can reverse its course of action and can call for a more intensified Shiite-Sunni sectarian violence. Al-Shayrat attack can turn out a definite watershed if channelized in a proper manner. However, with President Trump – an unconventional leader at the helm, it is better if we judge the situations with a pinch of salt. For now, President Trump, Vladimir Putin and all entities involved in the Syrian civil war will have to ensure utmost care and avoid mistakes that may expand this theater of war. Walking on such a tightrope often leads to a detailed chaos. With this case, I see a scary possibility – Syria is on the way to be the next ‘Iraq’.

The Marathi version of this article was published in the editorial section of 'Sakal' dated Wednesday, 12th April 2017.

सीरियाचा 'इराक' होण्याचा धोका 

गेल्या आठवड्यात सीरियाच्या इदलीब प्रांतातील खान शेखून शहरामध्ये झालेल्या रासायनिक हल्ल्यात सुमारे ८० जणांचा मृत्यू झाला. प्रथमदर्शनी हा हल्ला सीरियाचे अध्यक्ष  बशर अल असद आणि सरकारने केल्याचे आरोप करण्यात आले. मात्र, असद यांना पाठिंबा देणारा रशिया आणि इराणने हे आरोप फेटाळून लावतानाच असद विरोधकांचा यात हात असल्याचे सांगून कांगावा केला आहे. हल्ल्यातील लहान मुलांची आणि पीडितांची अवस्था बघून, सहन न झाल्यामुळे ट्रम्प यांनी असद सरकारच्या अल-शयरत लष्करी तळावर क्षेपणास्त्रे डागल्याचे 'व्हाईट हाऊस'कडून सांगण्यात आले. सहा वर्ष सुरु असलेल्या या लढाईत अमेरिकेने पहिल्यांदाच अधिकृतपणे सीरियावर हल्ला केला आहे. २०१३ साली रासायनिक अस्त्रांचा वापर असद सरकारने करून सुमारे १४०० जण मारल्यानंतरदेखील ओबामांनी असद यांच्यावर आधी बोलल्याप्रमाणे लष्करी कारवाई केली नव्हती. मागील आठवड्याच्या रासायनिक हल्ल्याच्या पाच दिवसांपूर्वी ट्रम्प सरकारने असद यांना हटवणे आपल्या प्राधान्यक्रमावर नसल्याचे जाहीर केले होते.
U.S President Donald Trump
Image credit - Google
त्याचा परिणाम म्हणून असद यांनी असा इंगा दाखवला. ट्रम्प यांनी हल्ला केला त्या तळावर रशियाची विमाने आणि जवान होते. त्यांना हल्ल्याची पूर्वसूचना अमेरिकेकडून देण्यात आली होती. सीरियाच्या लष्कराची जरी जीवितहानी या हल्ल्यात जास्त झाली नसली तरी असद सरकारला दणका बसला आहे. वायव्य, उत्तर आणि मध्य-सीरियातील विरोधकांचा बिमोड करण्याच्यादृष्टीने हा तळ असद सरकारसाठी महत्वाचा होता. असद, रशिया आणि इराणने या हल्ल्याचा निषेध नोंदवत, बदला घेण्याची भाषा केली आहे. या आठवड्यात अमेरिकेचे परराष्ट्रमंत्री रेक्स टीलर्सन हे व्लादिमिर पुतिन यांच्याशी चर्चा करणार आहेत. रशियाला या रासायनिक हल्ल्याची माहिती असल्याचे अमेरिकी अधिकारी आता सांगत आहेत. टीलर्सन-पुतिन भेटीत सीरिया सहजिकच चर्चेच्या अग्रस्थानी असेल.

या हल्ल्यानंतर ट्रम्प सरकारच्या प्रतिनिधींकडून सीरियाच्या धोरणाबाबत भिन्न-भिन्न प्रतिक्रिया येत आहेत. 'असद यांना हटवा' आणि 'असद यांचा निर्णय सीरियन जनता घेईल' असे दोन मुख्य प्रवाद अमेरिकेच्या धोरणात दिसतात. स्वतः ट्रम्प अध्यक्षीय उमेदवार असताना ते असद यांची जाहीर स्तुती करत होते. 'असद वाईट असले तरी ते 'आयसिस'ला संपवत आहेत' असे त्यांनी थेट अध्यक्षीय वादसभेत सांगितले होते. नव्या सरकारच्या १०० दिवसांकडे वाटचाल करणाऱ्या ट्रम्प प्रशासनाचे सीरियाबाबतचे स्पष्ट धोरण दिसत नाही. उत्तर कोरियाच्या बाबतीतसुद्धा गोष्ट फारशी निराळी नाही. सीरियावरील हल्ल्याचा आदेश ट्रम्प यांनी फ्लोरिडा येथील आपल्या खासगी महालातून चीनचे अध्यक्ष शी जिनपिंग यांच्या भेटीआधी दिला. तसे करून त्यांनी 'चीनने उत्तर कोरियाला आवरावे' असा सूचक संदेश दिल्याचे राजकीय जाणकार सांगतात. १९९८साली टांझानिया आणि केनियामधील अमेरिकी दूतावासावर झालेल्या हल्ल्यांनंतर तत्कालीन अध्यक्ष बिल क्लिंटन यांनी अशीच क्षेपणास्त्रे अफगाणिस्तानमधील 'अल-कायदा'च्या तळावर डागून संदेश दिला होता. 'अल-कायदा'ला ठेचल्याच्या भ्रमात असताना मग पुढे ९/११ चे हल्ले अमेरिकेवर झाले. सध्यस्थितीत जागतिक पातळीवरच्या महत्त्वाच्या प्रश्नांसंदर्भात ट्रम्प यांचे धोरण असेच संदेशापुढे सरकताना दिसत नाही. हा हल्ला गरजेचा आणि मोक्याचा असला तरी त्याचा काय दुरोगामी परिणाम होतो हे बघणे जिकिरीचे आहे. ट्रम्प यांना पुढे मार्गक्रमण करत असताना, असे निर्णय घेत, व्यापक परिणाम करणारी आपली बाजू ठळकपणे सिद्ध करावी लागेल. त्यांना भूमिका एका हल्ल्यापुरती मर्यादित ठेऊन चालणार नाही.

२०११पासून सुरु असेलेल्या या पेचात पिछाडीवर फेकल्या गेलेल्या अमेरिकेसाठी सीरियासंदर्भातल्या नव्या धोरणाची संधी चालून येणे गरजेचे होते. तशी ती आलीही. हल्ला करून ट्रम्प यांनी ओबामांच्या सीरियन धोरणाची जळमट बाजूला सारून आपण कच न खाता, स्वतंत्रपणे निर्णय घेऊ शकत असल्याचे दाखवून दिले असले तरी, एक हल्ला आणि दीर्घकालीन धोरण यात फरक आहे. तूर्तास तरी सीरियाबाबत त्यांच्या प्रशासनात एकवाक्यता आणि समान धोरण - समान कार्यक्रम आखलेला नाही. वेळ पडल्यास सीरियात अजून हल्ले करू असे संयुक्त राष्ट्रसंघातील अमेरिकेच्या राजदूत निक्की हॅले यांनी आता सांगितले आहे.
Khan Sheikhoun air-base, Syria
Image credit - Google
सीरियातील संघर्ष सोडवत असताना व 'आयसिस' आणि 'तहरीर अल-शम' या दहशतवादी गटांचा पराभव करू पाहणाऱ्या हॅले आणि अमेरिकेला सविस्तर धोरणाची गरज आहे. विरोधकांना चेपण्यासाठी काय वाट्टेल ते करण्याची असद यांना मुभा नसल्याची जाणीव ट्रम्प यांनी या हल्ल्याद्वारे नक्कीच करून दिली आहे. मात्र, क्लोरीन गॅसचा वापर, रुग्णालयांवर हल्ले, सामूहिक कत्तल, अमानूष छळ, उपासमारी आणि शहर अथवा प्रांताला वेढा घालून केलेली सामान्य नागरिकांची पिळवणूक ही असद यांची कार्यपद्धती राहिली आहे. त्यांच्या अश्या कृतीला आवर घालायचा असेल तर ट्रम्प यांना लष्करी बळासोबतच, मुत्सद्दीपणाची कस लावतानाच त्याला सुसंगत आणि अथक प्रयत्नांची जोड द्यावी लागेल. राजकीय पोकळी जिहादी मनोवृत्तीला बळ देते असे पश्चिम आशियातील ताजा इतिहास सांगतो. फक्त लष्करी भांडवलावर सीरियाच्या प्रश्नाचा निकाल लागू शकणार नाही. त्याचबरोबर असद यांच्याऐवजी सध्या पर्याय उपलब्ध नसताना त्यांना खुर्चीवरून खाली खेचून कट्टरवादी घटक आणि त्यांची व्याप्ती फोफावण्याची शक्यता जास्त आहे. 'आयसिस'ची तीव्रता जरी कमी होत चालली असली तरी असद राजवट जाताच 'आयसिस' परत बाळसे धरू शकते आणि सध्या सुरु असलेला शिया-सुन्नी पंथभेदातला हिंसाचार अजून उग्र रूप धारण करू शकतो. अशी तारेवरची कसरत करताना, चूक टाळण्याची काळजी ट्रम्प, पुतिन आणि इतर सर्व घटकांना घ्यावी लागेल. तसे न केल्यास सीरियाचा इराक व्हायची भीती जास्त आहे.

                                                                      - वज़ीर 

हा लेख बुधवार, १२ एप्रिल २०१७ च्या 'सकाळ'च्या संपादकीय पानावर छापण्यात आला.

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