Syria air strikes: Bombing Douma revealed the fragility of the Anglo-American 'special relationship'

Analysis: Donald Trump appears to have built up a stronger rapport with Emmanuel Macron than with Theresa May

Kim Sengupta
Diplomatic Editor
Monday 16 April 2018 16:40
Theresa May denies UK bombed Syria 'beacuse Trump asked us to'

Emmanuel Macron has declared that he persuaded Donald Trump to limit the Syria air strikes to a few targets and avoid a conflagration. In London, the briefing from government officials was that the US president was, in fact, wobbling over military action at the end and Theresa May played a part in him holding firm.

But in reality it was not Mr Macron or Ms May who effectively decided the scale and scope of the raids, but General James Mattis. The American defence secretary, by all reliable accounts, was key in formulating the parameters of the mission – one already handicapped at various levels by Mr Trump’s tweeted boast of the “missiles are coming” – and also saw off the efforts of the new “super-hawk” national security advisor, John Bolton, to widen operations and hit locations where Iranians may be present.

But Mr Trump’s threat to attack was not due to Mr Bolton or anyone else. The president’s message delivered on social media, like so many of the others he produces on an industrial scale, was an instant reaction after watching images on TV news. But this one passed off as one of his fire and forget tweets. It made military action inevitable even though the commanders and the intelligence agencies were, as Gen Mattis acknowledged, still assessing what exactly happened in Douma.

As the consequences of what may unfold was laid out by Gen Mattis and other security advisors, Mr Trump’s next tweet said: “I didn’t say when there will be an attack on Syria. It will happen very soon, maybe not so soon in any case.” Then even more confusedly, he wrote: “The United States during the existence of my administration did a great job of ridding the region of Isis, where is our ‘Thank you America?’”

According to Downing Street accounts, this was when a subdued President Trump called Ms May and the British prime minister’s response put some ballast in him. There are echoes in this of Margaret Thatcher telling Ronald Reagan to stand firm on nuclear deterrence talks with Moscow, but Ms May, despite her efforts, is not commonly viewed as another Iron Lady and Mr Trump, most would say, is no Ronald Reagan. According to a number of diplomatic Sources, however, the concern of the UK at this stage was that it may be left out of a American-French enterprise.

The fact is that despite the supposed American and British “Special Relationship”, Mr Trump appears to have built up a stronger rapport with Mr Macron than with Ms May, with the US president having a fairly successful, hassle-free visit to France while one to the UK is still to take place.

Mr Trump has had two lengthy conversations with Mr Macron while Ms May waited to talk to him and, according to French and American officials, the French president urged the need for air strikes. Mr Macron also claimed to have persuaded Mr Trump not to pull out troops from Syria, but any withdrawal would have been in the months ahead rather than immediately.

Mr Macron had expressed his views that military action should follow in response to a chemical attack by the Assad regime on coming to power last year. The French had taken a tough stance on this in the past. In 2013, Francois Hollande was urging raids while David Cameron went to the Commons for authority for military action and failed to do so, and Barack Obama desisted from bombing after accepting Russian assurances that President Assad would get rid of his chemical weapons.

It made more sense, logistically, for the US to liaise more with France than the UK. Mr Macron claimed early on that he had proof of a chemical attack on Douma. It was also argued that France had more military assets to contribute than the UK with its defences suffering cuts and, unlike the UK, could use warships as well as planes in the attack.

At the end of the day, however, the difference in delivery was relatively slight. France fired 12 missiles to Britain’s eight. The “heavy lifting” was, as usual, being done by America with 85 missiles. Just how much damage was done, with the Syrians evacuating bases and moving equipment thanks to Mr Trump’s tweeted early warning, remains a matter of dispute.

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