Magazine article The Spectator

Countdown to War?

Magazine article The Spectator

Countdown to War?

Article excerpt

Trump is talking tough but an air strike won't help Syria

Beirut

'Gas!' Bodies piled up grotesquely in a stairwell. No sign of injuries. A father cradles two small children. Still, pale as ghosts. A doctor says the victims died suffocating, foaming at the mouth. One man declares: 'I could feel my lungs shutting down.' Babies getting hosed with water in a makeshift hospital. These words and images from the Syrian town of Douma filled the rolling news channels on Monday. They capture the peculiar terror and moral repugnance of chemical weapons ... if it is true, as reported, that these weapons were used.

One viewer in particular was glued to cable news, as is his habit: Donald Trump. He quickly tweeted that 'Animal Assad' -- the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad -- would have a 'big price to pay' ... 'SICK!' Later, his cabinet gathered around him, he was in full statesman mode: Commander-in-Chief, wartime President. As ever, it is worth quoting Trump at length when he speaks without a script. 'We are here to discuss Syria tonight. We're the greatest fighting force anywhere in the world. These gentlemen and ladies are incredible people. Incredible talent, and we're making a decision as to what we do with respect to the horrible attack that was made near Damascus ... and it will be met forcefully ... but we are developing the greatest force that we've ever had.'

Journalists at the cabinet photo-op weren't interested in Trump free-associating about the US military's 'incredible talent'. 'Did you have an affair with Stormy Daniels?' This wasn't as crass as it might have seemed. According to the Washington Post, Trump has been obsessively flicking between coverage of Syria and another breaking story: FBI raids on the offices of his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. Cohen had paid off a porn actress, Stormy Daniels, who claims she had an affair with Trump. 'Why don't you just fire Mueller?' another reporter asked. Trump replied: 'Well, I think it's a disgrace, what's going on. We'll see what happens. But I think it's really a sad situation ... And many people have said you should fire him.'

This has fuelled speculation that Trump was moving so quickly on Syria to create the right moment to get rid of Robert Mueller, who leads the inquiry into whether Trump's election campaign conspired with Russia. Americans may be reminded of Bill Clinton's 'split screen presidency' when CNN literally had missiles arcing up through the night sky towards Iraq in one half of the picture while Clinton denied allegations about his sex life in the other. Now, one half of the split screen carries a bewildering succession of tabloid stories from Trump's reality TV presidency: Stormy Daniels versus Russia; half a dozen other women alongside Mueller, porn and poison gas, the war against the FBI and the war against Syria.

Some doctors at the scene have blamed chlorine gas; others Sarin nerve agent. Assad agreed to destroy all stockpiles of Sarin in 2013, when he was threatened with bombing by President Barack Obama. If the regime did use Sarin in the Douma attack, then Assad lied. Or, as a leading Republican hawk, Senator Lindsey Graham, put in on a Sunday morning talkshow when Syria's dictator was last accused of using Sarin a year ago: 'Here's what I think Assad's telling Trump ... F you.'

Chlorine has many civilian uses and so was left out of the 2013 agreement, a crucial loophole. If this is what's behind the choking, suffocating deaths in Douma and, again, if the regime is responsible, this would be the biggest chlorine attack by government forces of Syria's civil war. The regime -- and the Russians -- deny it. They blame the Islamist rebels in Douma, saying that such a 'provocation' was being readied ever since it became clear the rebels were about to lose the town.

The question now is the same as that in 2013: why Assad would do the one thing most likely to bring about a US attack on his power. …

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