7-9 April, 2016 has been an active weekend in a number of ways and on a host of fronts around the world. Venezuela is heating up as protesters and security forces clashed on Saturday amid large protests against the government of President Maduro. In the Middle East, last week’s use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government led to US military action on the morning of 7 April. The TLAM strike against the airbase which housed the aircraft responsible for delivering the chemical agents has given the Syrian conflict new significance and set it in a direction few predicted. Meanwhile, in Egypt and northern Europe terrorism has reared its ugly head. ISIS bombings against Coptic Christian churches in Egypt have shattered the peace and sanctity of Palm Sunday leaving over 40 dead. The final possible flashpoint is in northeast Asia where the USS Carl Vinson and her battlegroup have been ordered back to the Sea of Japan to operate in close proximity to North Korea in the coming days.
This update will focus on Syria and the terror attacks in Egypt. Tomorrow the weekend’s developments in northwest Asia, and the protests in Venezuela will be looked at.
All eyes are on Damascus and Moscow as the world waits anxiously to see what transpires next after the US cruise missile strike on Friday morning. Russia’s response was predictably negative. In a series of statements from a diverse crowd of government officials in Moscow and beyond Russia denounced the US actions, announced it plans to upgrade Syria’s air defenses, and warned that it will respond with force if the US uses its military option against Syria once more. Beyond dialogue, released statements, and a minimal move on the military chess board concerning the movement of a Russian destroyer into the Eastern Med, Moscow’s reaction has been muted.
There was likely a great deal of surprise in Moscow about the fashion in which President Trump and the United States responded to the chemical attack last week. Now, in the midst of a growing crisis Putin finds himself having to adjust his strategy in Syria. The stakes have grown larger over the past week. The US has acted against Bashir al-Assad, the world is condemning his use of chemical weapons on civilians, and talk about Syria’s future minus Assad is increasing.
Putin and Russia do not need a way out of this situation. What is desperately needed is a fresh take on a political solution. Syria’s government can remain in power and an ally of Russia without Assad at the helm. He is becoming more toxic by the day. Russia could do much to help itself by searching for an alternative to Assad in Damascus. As time moves on, the chances of an anti-Assad coalition forming will increase.
For the United States, the way forward has to be decided upon and shaped. In many respects the new US policy on Syria is going to be the foundation for President Trump’s foreign policy and, if the situation allows, the formation of a Trump doctrine. The greatest unknown is whether Assad will defy Trump and use chemical weapons again. If the possibility becomes reality it will ratchet up the level of tension greatly. The US could be forced to response, despite the warnings from Moscow that it will not allow further military action to go unpunished.
Palm Sunday Attacks
Palm Sunday is one of the most significant days on the Christian calendar, when the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is celebrated This morning in Egypt, two suicide bombings in Coptic Christian churches killed 44 people and wounded 126. This was the single deadliest day for Christians in decades. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks and there is a strong possibility that more suicide bombings will be coming in the near future as Holy Week is now upon us.
The attacks come at a delicate time for Egyptian President Fattah el-Sisi and threatens to undermine his promise of increased security. Egypt is wrestling with a deteriorating economy and political malaise. Increased acts of sectarian violence by Islamic militants will only serve to make his political position less tenable. The timing of the attacks should be considered too. Yes, it is a Christian holiday, but el-Sisi has recently returned from a trip to Washington DC and the prospect of a renewed US-Egyptian relationship could have been a motivating factor for ISIS in launching these attacks. The message, as well as the action, then have to be analyzed in the proper context.