Scandinavia under shock: a lorry intentionally plowing through a pedestrian zone before crashing into the front of a department store in the very heart of Stockholm is not what you would expect in Europe’s peace-loving north, usually priding itself on its standards of living and morality. What was called an act of terror by the police soon after checking the scene on Drottninggatan (Queen Street), one of the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfares, is remarkable for yet another fact.
The suspect, according to Swedish media, a 39-year-old admirer of the Islamic State (IS), or Daesh, terror organisation, is said to originate from Uzbekistan. After the St. Petersburg metropolitan attack earlier this week, committed by a suicide bomber from Kyrgyzstan, and the Reina nightclub shooting in Istanbul, where another Uzbek killed 39 in the wee hours of New Year’s Eve, Stockholm would be the third attack this year by Islamist fanatics from Central Asia.
Did the man who apparently hijacked a lorry from a Stockholm brewery shortly before driving it into the pedestrian zone act upon the bombing of the Shayrat Syrian airfield by US forces earlier the same day? Hardly so – assuming the man has at least a rough understanding of the front lines in the sectarian civil war in Syria, where the Shiite-backed Assad government and the fiercely Sunni IS are as much at loggerheads as IS and the West, or the West and the Assad regime, as it is called there. Maybe he acted upon an emotional impulse, appalled by the attack by a Western force against a Muslim country.
At the end of the day, it is irrelevant to what extent both Friday events were related – the shock waves from Stockholm and Shayrat are palpable around the world.
The staccato of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles – fired at about 04.40 Syrian time on Friday morning from two US Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and flying towards Syria’s western Homs province – concluded any speculation that the Trump presidency might replay the “all words and no action” of predecessor Obama. However, as of now, most experts interpret the attack not as a sign of deepening US involvement in the Syrian civil war – rather as a signal, “loud and clear”, to warring factions all over the world. A signal that the United States of America, regardless of objections even from permanent members of the UN Security Council, will not allow certain breaches of international law to go unpunished – namely the use of chemical and, presumably, nuclear weapons, be it in the course of international conflict or in the course of civil war.
By ordering the attack, Donald Trump at least resurrected an element of US credibility that was lost after Barack Obama, who having repeatedly drawn “red lines” regarding the of chemical weapons in the Syrian war in 2012-13, shilly-shallied when the time came to follow up on his words.
Many Sunni Arabs felt jubilant after Friday’s news. The endearing nickname “Abu Ivanka”, father of Ivanka, Trump’s daughter, went viral throughout the Arab Facebook world. One user wrote: “You did in a few months what Obama couldn’t do in 8 years.” In the West, Trump’s determination secured him credit across most of the mainstream spectrum, with the likely exception of East Coast and European leftist liberals. Opposition also originated with many of Trump’s most faithful supporters, the stern anti-interventionists. Among that part of the electorate, Internet discussion threads reflected a high degree of dissent and disappointment. The president was blamed for allowing his establishment advisors to “turn him around”, some going as far as calling him “George Bush III”.
The 59 Tomahawks were meant to remind the world who the biggest boy on the block still is. Fired during the visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping and his wife to the “Winter White House” Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private golf club in Florida, the cruise missiles also constituted a statement on Beijing’s own gunboat diplomacy in the North and South China Seas. The message was clear enough: We can play softball; we can play hardball. The choice is yours.
For the Kremlin, Trump’s decisiveness poses a challenge. Over recent years, Russian politics have been benefitting from a weak administration in Washington, allowing Moscow to pocket significant tactical gains: the 2013 Syrian chemical arms agreement; the Crimean peninsula; the Syrian military intervention in 2015. Now, all of a sudden, the tables seem turned. The initiative is back with the US, and, even worse, Moscow’s effective authority over the Assad government has come under serious doubt.
All the while, the perpetrators of the suspected nerve agent attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun last week have not yet been established. Western capitals blame the government in Damascus, while Assad officials and their Russian backers speak of rebel-owned nerve gas stocks that were incidentally hit during a government air raid. Another version, sparsely discussed in public, puts the blame on internal rifts among the Syrian elite and competing chains of military command. One likely protagonist in a potential power struggle is Maher al-Assad, the younger brother of president Bashar al-Assad and head of the Syrian security agencies. Since there is little public knowledge about the state or the stability of the Syrian power elite, it is unlikely that the truth around the events in Khan Sheikhoun will ever be determined without probing for detail from the inside.
There is one characteristic of the Trump approach, as it emerges, that differs significantly from the Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama presidencies. That is the absence of the democratisation missionary. If true, this might be highly appreciated by Russian politicians. From a Moscow perspective, the deplorable state of the Middle East and North Africa – largely disrupted, destroyed, dysfunctional – is primarily the result of botched Western “democratisation and nation building” attempts. A US administration policing the world in accordance with the old-school principle of “live and let live, just don’t freak out”, would be much to Moscow’s palate. That is where Trump and Putin, in spite of the Tomahawks and the subsequent indignation, might soon find common ground.