Syria: Strike or Gutter Ball?

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by Robert E. Hunter

To borrow an old Washington saying, President Donald Trump now “owns Syria.” That would probably have been true anyway, but with the cruise missile attacks on the Shayrat air base, the conclusion is now inescapable.

It should not be the place of outsiders to try speculating on the “why” of President Trump’s decision, but rather to assess the implications, regardless of motive.

As one effect, he has now redeemed President Barack Obama’s pledge regarding a “red-line” against the use of poison gas by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, whether the current use was deliberate or (unlikely) a failure of “command and control” within the Syrian military. Trump has acted where Obama did not. Of course, Obama was handicapped when the British government jumped ship at the last moment after a vote by the House of Commons, whereas London has endorsed the US strike following the gassing of civilians at Khan Sheikhoun this past week. But Obama also was of two minds because of the possibility that US military action in response to Assad’s crossing of the red-line could draw the United States militarily more deeply into the Syrian Civil War. His caution could be encapsulated in a two-word question that leaders always need to pose: “What next?”

President Trump has also dealt with a perception created by a March 30 statement by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that “the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” Whatever Tillerson meant to convey, this seemed to give a green light to Assad to do what he pleased. Think Dean Acheson’s leaving Korea out of the US Pacific defensive perimeter in January 1950, which was followed by the invasion of South Korea. Or Washington instructing the US ambassador to Iraq to tell Saddam Hussein in July 1990 that “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait,” after which Saddam Hussein’s invasion followed. As in Korea and Kuwait, through its military response, the US has now reversed itself, both in actions and words. Tillerson has now said: “With the acts that [Assad] has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.”

What Next?

What the United States does to follow up on the strike depends in part on the Russian Federation. Direct US intervention in the Syrian Civil War comes a week before Tillerson goes to Moscow to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other officials. Russia has already condemned the US military action as “a significant blow to Russian-American relations, which were already in a sorry state.” The Russian prime minister tweeted: “On the verge of a military clash with Russia,” and Moscow suspended an agreement with the US to “deconflict” each side’s air operations over Syria. How much of this Russian reaction is posturing for position and effect is unknowable, but it cannot just be dismissed as bluster.

Tillerson’s impending meetings in Moscow had to be on the minds of Trump administration decision-makers. Was the attack in Syria designed in part to show President Vladimir Putin how serious the US is in its efforts to get Russia to stop backing Assad? Or to create bargaining leverage, in general, against assertive Russian actions, including those in Central Europe? Even if not a conscious motive, it is part of the diplomatic landscape.

Again, it should not be the job of outsiders to suggest tactics for the days ahead. But they can talk about larger strategic issues.

After not even 100 days in office, the Trump administration still does not have in place a clearly established and functioning process for comprehensively reviewing US interests in the Middle East (or elsewhere), the crafting of strategies to achieve those interests, and the interrelationship of the many overlapping aspects of policy, from North Africa and the Persian Gulf Arab states to Iran and Russia and all that’s at stake in Europe following Russian intervention in Ukraine. To be fair, it would be virtually unprecedented if any new administration at this point had done more than just begin to think of the various actions and interactions that are involved (think John Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs or Bill Clinton and Somalia). Only this week, for example, President Trump revised the structure of the National Security Council system—in the process removing the intensely polarizing Steve Bannon—to bring it into line with that of at least the preceding six administrations. Nevertheless, with almost no officials even nominated to fill senior State Department slots, the Trump administration has set a record for delay in getting its national security team up and running.

Four Considerations

At least four factors now stand out in the aftermath of the Syria strikes. First, the United States will no longer be able to focus just on destroying the Islamic State. From here on, the US has put itself in the position of having simultaneously to exert leadership on dealing with Syria and Bashar al-Assad.

Second, the United States will no longer be able to keep Syria separate from its overall relations with Russia, not just in that region but also regarding other parts of the world, especially Europe. Until now, it was possible to argue that Russia’s involvement in Syria, while important, was not central to overall US-Russian relations, including the future of Ukraine and European security. Further, the US has now put at some risk the potential for cooperation with Russia over Islamist terrorism, which also threatens Russia as this week’s bombing in the St. Petersburg subway once again demonstrated.

Third, the United States can no longer refuse to see what is happening in Syria as connected to the basic geopolitical struggle accelerated by the US-led invasion of Iraq 14 years ago. That intervention upended Sunni-minority rule over the Shia and Kurdish majority, thus leading to frantic efforts by almost all the region’s Sunni-majority states—from Egypt and Turkey through the Persian Gulf monarchies, notably Saudi Arabia—to regain preeminence. That has been in part couched in terms of the struggle with Shia (and non-Arab) Iran, but also in intensified Sunni repression in Bahrain, Saudi aggression in Yemen, and, most important, the effort to topple Alawite-minority rule in majority non-Alawite Syria.

Fourth, the Trump administration will not be able to avoid serious strategic analysis and planning for the Middle East, North Africa, and southwest Asia as a whole, now including the Russian dimension. The George W. Bush administration failed to undertake such a process, with terrible results. The Obama administration, save for the nuclear agreement with Iran, followed this same pattern. The Trump administration can’t afford to make this same mistake—or else the current mess in the Middle East will potentially escalate militarily out of control.

Ironically, the cruise missile strikes on Syria came on the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I. From then until recent years, the United States tended more or less to get things right in terms of the application of power and purpose (with some notably exceptions, as with failure to join the League of Nations, the Vietnam War, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.) From the end of World War II onward, the United States could be counted on to be the mainstay of a globe-spanning effort to reduce the risks of major conflict. This administration has departed from this tradition. So far, no one has stepped up to take America’s place.

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Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

4 Comments

  1. Mr Ambassador Hunter, where’s the solid evidence(s) that Assad used chemical enriched with chlorine in order to minimize casualties? The evidence for the chlorine enriched chemical is the fact was it’s water solublity without the attendants being exposed to more harmful chemical like nerves agent! The second question is who set up this false flag with the chemical attack? Was it Syria then why? Or was it Russia then why? What benefits were in the attack for Syria or Russia? Was it the work of the US, Israel or Saudi or Turkey or Qatar? The known interests for the latter group are:
    1. Forewarning to the Chinese leader and its support for the bozo in NKorea?
    2. For Trump to divert attention and gain the internal support from the war mongers?
    3. For Trump to show his decisiveness to his voters?
    4. For the rest of the countries, the false flag was intended to pull the US into the Syrian quagmire officially hoping that Assad would fall? Trump would own the problem!
    5. A warning to Iran not think about or act on establishing a military base in Syria?

    This whole Syria scenario smells fishy to me and I don’t believe the story for a second until someone shows some real evidence(s).

  2. Thank you Monty Ahwazi for articulating some of the questions I’d like answers for. Here’s some more:

    – Why would the Syrian military launch this attack when it was clearly coming out on top in its civil war? The Syrian government would be well aware of the outrage a chemical attack would cause – why take the risk? Also, why would they risk embarrassing Russia, a vital ally? Bashar al-Assad has been called many things – stupid is not one of them.

    – Why is a carefully edited YouTube clip made by the sometimes Jihadi-allied Sunni White Helmets, complete with emotive theme music, considered irrefutable evidence the Syrian government’s guilt. After the Iraq “weapons of mass destruction” fiasco, I want to see more proof than this.

    -The pictures of dead children were horrifying. However, I’m wondering why they were all grouped together for the photographs. Where are their parents? Why are they being moved around by bearded men who look suspiciously like Jihadi fighters?

    – The main spokesperson for the rebels about the attack appears to “Dr” Shajul Islam. He is a British citizen who was struck off the British medical register for his links to Jihadi groups. He was implicated in the first kidnapping of British journalist John Cantlie and his brothers are fighting with ISIS. Why is a known Jihadi considered a credible source on this matter?

  3. I just read a very good article written by Mike Whitney using the excerpt from an interview with Phil Giraldi! Phil’s intelligence contacts in the field have revealed to him that the claim and the narrative about the chemical attack by Syria is inaccurate and what the wh and msm are claiming is very disturbing! However, Phil has not revealed any evidence! Either he doesn’t have any or he does have them but doesn’t want to reveal them in order to protect his sources!

  4. 1. “possibility that US military action in response to Assad’s crossing of the red-line could draw the United States militarily more deeply into the Syrian Civil War.”
    No mention of the complete illegality of this aggression.
    2. “part of the diplomatic landscape”?????? American diplomacy I assume.
    3.“the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” ‘ Whatever Tillerson meant to convey, ‘ surely that means what is says. The USA was not asked, for obvious reasons when we see the state of the other countries the USA has “helped”.

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