by Gordon Adams
Ah the Syrian ballet; ya gotta love it. We’ve been dancing for days around the missile strikes on Syria, strikes that were full of movement, explosions, and military fury, signifying nothing.
What a show it has been, giving everyone from the dancing principals to the corps de ballet an opportunity to shine. For terpsichorean Trump, it’s meant an opportunity to pirouette away from the legal fence closing around him, to yell “you’re fired” at Assad and mean “fired at,” to wear the presidential tutu over a suit that does not fit him well, and even to do a pas-de-deux with Bush 43, announcing “mission accomplished.”
A wonderful cameo from Sarah Huckabee Sanders included a grand jeté at the previous president: “The President put our adversaries on notice: when he draws a red line he enforces it.”
Fresh from leaving the EU corps de ballet, Theresa May got chance to join the lead dancers, and ingratiate herself with Trump, while Emmanuel Macron developed his own company as an enforcer of international norms. Russia did an arabesque, warning of a dire response to the Western moves, but not even going on stage. The Iranians danced a fandango across the rest of the company, undeterred. Assad performed a perfect axel, spinning lightly from one day of work to the next.
Everybody knew their steps. And the media corps de ballet just loved it; they couldn’t wait to rush from their Friday night cocktails at Old Ebbitt Grill to the “high stakes drama” James Mattis and Joseph Dunford gave them at a 10:00 briefing at the Pentagon. The media—especially television—just loves the application of force. It means lots of fireworks in the air and on the ground, and an opportunity for the vocal members of the corps—the serious, grey-haired, retired military and diplomats—to bloviate, critique, pontificate, warn, speculate and get in another 15 minutes of fame and money. Even the grand old lady of the corps, the New York Times, entertained us with near-banner headlines and pages of coverage and speculation about the deeper meaning of this meaningless military action.
It sounded dramatic, it looked good, everyone got to dance. And the circus moves on. As Prospero says in The Tempest:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision ,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, and all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
This is not entirely true; there is now more massive wreckage on the ground in Syria, adding to the unplanned renovation opportunity that Syria’s once historic cities have become. But in reality, nothing happened, nothing changed. For good reasons, Russian forces were warned ahead of time and spared. No Iranian mercenaries were touched. Assad remains in power, his forces intact, probably with chemicals still in his possession, and a continuing opportunity to mop up what is left of the Syrian resistance. Iran’s forces are still there, as is Hezbollah. The Turks dance a waltz with the Kurds.
This was only about the “sound and light,” not about strategy. The reality is that the U.S. has no strategy for Syria. The United States has been reduced to “bit player” status in Syria, appearing every once in a while on stage but without a significant role in shaping the future of Syria. All the missile strikes in the world thrown at Syrian chemical plants will not influence the direction of the civil war. Nor will the retention of U.S. military forces in Northeast Syria provide “stability” or “recovery” in that region—the U.S. military has amply proven it cannot execute this task (see Iraq and Afghanistan for evidence).
And the presence of the U.S. military will not buy Washington a presence at a diplomatic table resolving Syria’s fate. The U.S.-supported Geneva process, the UN, and the Americans themselves have all been sidelined by the real negotiators with a stake in the outcome: Iran, Turkey, Russia, and Assad.
Our “bit player” status is not a result of mistakes made by the Obama administration. The waning desire of countries in the Middle East to involve the U.S. (or the French and British) in their affairs has a long history. French and British military strikes only remind those in the region of the role those two powers played in carving up the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago and the ill-fated Suez invasion of 1956 among other things. U.S. involvement with oil and strong men over decades damaged U.S. currency with many in the region. The major strategic error of invading Iraq in 2003 and the incompetence of U.S. policy in the aftermath of the invasion opened the Pandora’s box and unleashed the turmoil we see in the region today, which we have no hope of controlling.
The US is increasingly marginalized in the Middle East. In large measure this is a self-inflicted wound. We now must deal with the reality that other countries and actors are more central. It’s time to develop a diplomatic strategy that contributes to a settlement of the Syrian civil war, a task made more difficult by the decimation of the State Department.
We can waltz in the shadows all we want, but at best we are a small part of the corps de ballet in the regional dance, obliged to plié to the lead dancers.
Gordon Adams is emeritus faculty from American University and a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center. He oversaw national security budgets in the Clinton White House from 1993-97.