The recent attacks in Douma obviously cross the much-ballyhooed red line. But what lies beyond the red line? Thus far it is belligerent tweets and name-calling from the leader of the free world (Mr Assad is “an animal”, Mr Trump says) and equally threatening responses from Moscow. Washington, with its allies, is presumably mulling a surgical military response which might cause photogenic damage to Syrian installations and personnel without harming a single Russian soldier, diplomat or adviser. Let us all hope they are very careful indeed, since what they are contemplating is both an empty gesture and phenomenally dangerous.
The US under Donald Trump appears to know nothing, and to care less, about what happens after Assad goes – if indeed he goes at all. This may explain why Assad is so hard to get rid of. It explains why Washington has few genuine allies in the region and why its supposed NATO ally, Turkey, which has deep interests in who runs Syria, is undermining it at every turn.
For Turkey, Syria is next door. It is full of Kurds, who loathe the Turks as much as they loathe Assad. For Russia and Turkey, neither of which cares greatly for human rights, Bashar al-Assad, murderous and vile despot though he is, is a safe bet. He will keep the lid on things and cause his powerful neighbours and patrons as little trouble as possible. Nothing the US can do will achieve that.
But for Mr Trump, reality TV star and President, appearances are what matter above all and a few missiles fired from thousands of kilometres away will, if they don’t hit anyone important and precipitate a global conflict, make good television and create a public relations smokescreen that may last a few days. For this administration, that would be mission accomplished.