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Syria: ruthless business as usual

The joint US-UK-French strikes on chemicals targets in Syria won’t affect the war—but they could damage Trump's image in the region

The Gulf Cooperation Council states applauded when the authorities in Washington, London and Paris agreed on coordinated air and missiles strikes on Syria. But the applause was polite rather than enthusiastic.

For while there was relief that the three Western nations had taken military action against the Bashar al-Assad regime, there was disappointment that the strikes were merely a very limited, one-off operation. This was underlined by Donald Trump's "Mission accomplished" Tweet, barely hours after the action was over.

In other words, the attacks on the alleged chemicals weapons sites didn't reassure these countries that the American president and his allies have come up with any longer-term strategy for the Syria crisis. There still is no such strategy, with Washington saying only that its war in Syria aims at eliminating the Islamic State group.

So, after particular care was taken to ensure that the strikes didn't hit Russian positions and lead to wider escalation, it's now a case of back to business as usual. Russia and Iran, for their own differing strategic reasons, will continue to help the Assad regime pursue its ruthless military campaign against remaining Syrian opposition and IS positions.

Trump's bellicose statements on Syria, Arab commentators are saying, weren't matched by the scale of the recent military operation. Some observers in the GCC states are wondering whether his anti-Iran rhetoric will similarly turn out to be more fiery than any future action.

There are other signs, too, of a shift in the Gulf's perception of the Trump presidency. King Salman, in a speech to the latest Arab summit in the Saudi city of Dhahran, publicly criticised the Trump administration for its decision to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He went further: he designated the meeting of Arab leaders "The Jerusalem Summit" to underline his opposition to US policy on the issue.

Up to now, Trump's strong support for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, plus his public hostility towards Iran, have enabled regional governments to overlook other aspects of his presidency. But one senses a shift in mood. Take, for example, this comment by veteran columnist Jihad al-Khazen in the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat: "Donald Trump is a businessman who doesn't understand much about politics or managing wars, yet he's in a position to hurt his country and its allies around the world."

The realisation in the Gulf is that while the Trump administration is eager to sell arms to the Middle East, it doesn't have any practical ideas for solving the region's many crises. Thus the polite, rather than enthusiastic, applause for the recent Syrian operation.

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