Syrian War: Your Move Again, President Trump

by Wayne White

Donald Trump’s grasp of the Syrian War remains highly questionable. Just days before the Syrian chemical weapons (CW) strike on a rebel-held population center, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson implied that the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was no longer a US objective. Trump’s news conference beside Jordan’s King Abdullah suggested that the U.S. president had no clue prior to this CW attack about what has been happening in Syria. He produced a litany of slanted half-truths and distortions concerning the course of the war against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) under President Obama and engaged in extraordinary hubris concerning his ability to solve a host of serious global challenges. Most of these assertions have gone unchallenged amidst the hype following the air strike, as has the overall ineffectiveness of the strike itself.

President Obama did not simply blink when his CW red line was challenged in late August 2013. Obama immediately sought a UN Security Council resolution to bless planned US military action. Russia and China blocked it. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin, still very worried about unilateral US action (perhaps with reason), quickly put forward an international plan for removing all CW in Syria’s arsenal. This probably had, despite isolated Syrian CW attacks since, a lot more impact than a one-time US strike against some isolated Syrian CW targets would have had.

The nearly 1,000 tons of Syrian CW that inspectors removed, based on my years as the State Department’s Senior Intelligence Analyst for Syria, probably included Mustard, Sarin, and VX (which sticks to surfaces and continues killing), much of it already weaponized in aerial bombs, heavy artillery shells, and missile warheads. A number of these weapons could kill a thousand people with one hit in a crowded urban setting. I doubt that Syria would attack with primitive chlorine you can accidently mix in your own bathroom and seemingly small sarin bombs if it still had plentiful stocks of its vastly more dangerous pre-2013 CW munitions.

Finally, despite the criticism of Obama for not acting militarily in Syria especially in 2013, few at the time wanted Obama to get militarily involved. Although Senator John McCain (R-AZ) railed about Obama’s lack of action, almost all his Republican colleagues remained tellingly silent, with memories of the blundering, bloody, and costly Iraq adventure still fresh. Likewise, polls revealed the American public had little stomach for military involvement in Syria in 2013 when the Syrians first used Sarin. In fact, in 2011, the GOP Congress got in an uproar over Obama’s brief aerial involvement in Libya, even though the UK and France—not the US—were in the lead.

Trump’s Misleading Mosul Musings

Trump boasted that he would not telegraph his military moves as he claimed the Obama administration did, month by month, before the attack on Mosul. One good military reason for this telegraphing may not only have been to distract IS from ongoing Iraqi attacks on other key locales but also to encourage as many of Mosul’s civilians to leave as possible. Trump then described the Mosul battle as being “a much harder fight than anyone thought.”

Actually, the battle has gone better than many expected—including this Iraq intelligence veteran—despite the still somewhat shaky capabilities of the Iraqi Army and associated forces. By moving into the city cautiously, the Iraqi Army sustained relatively limited losses in facing an IS weakened by numerous prior defeats, ongoing airstrikes, near complete isolation, and reduced financial resources. Most IS resistance in and around Mosul has been confined to driving car bombs at Iraqi troops (typically spotted and destroyed), sniping, scattered clashes best described as skirmishing, and booby traps left behind.

This is hardly how IS fought in late 2014-early 2015 in its fierce attempts to take Kobani from Syrian Kurds in what some called an IS-Kurdish Stalingrad. Compare the October 2016-April 2017 Mosul battle (soon to be over) with the grinding progress of crack Syrian regime, Iranian, and Hezbollah troops for over four years to take Aleppo. Both cities comprise roughly 80 square miles.

Policy Disarray

Despite evidence of CW attacks last September and December readily available to Trump in briefings since he won the presidential election, he suddenly declared that his attitude toward Syria has “changed.” So in an abrupt, whiplash-inducing, 180-degree epiphany, he cites his personal revulsion over images of terrible suffering and orders an airstrike—the latter without the required consultations with Congress. This is, again, a reflection of the sort of impulsive behavior that unsettles allies and adversaries alike. In fact, given Trump’s visibly shallow grasp of world affairs and pompously self-centered chatter, one wonders how savvy leaders like Angela Merkel, King Abdullah, and Chinese President Xi Jinping speak privately of the new US president on their way home.

In terms of what happens next, the administration clearly hoped that the airstrike would be a “one off.” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said: “We are prepared to do more, but we hope it will not be necessary,” but her comments were linked only to Assad’s “use of chemical weapons.”

The administration, and those many voices from various sides praising the strike, may have believed that Assad and Vladimir Putin were going to largely absorb their spanking and behave more humanely. Yet, the two are undoubtedly livid. Contrary to some reports, the chosen Syrian airfield was hit very hard. Putin has suspended Russia’s Syrian aerial de-confliction agreement with the US (though probably not wanting clashes with US aircraft) and intends to strengthen Syria’s air defenses (not all that useful against terrain-hugging cruise missiles, however). But by current US definition, beyond CW, the Russian-led pro-regime alliance still can do pretty much as they want in Syria, and that leaves them a host of options to engage in mischief that also could enrage Trump all over again.

My observations indicate that over 99% of all casualties inflicted by pro-regime forces to date have been caused by conventional bombing (including infamous “Barrel Bombs”), heavy artillery, as well as mortar and small arms fire. This has included Russian and Syrian targeting of hospitals and clinics. What is to stop a seething Putin and an enraged Assad from simply ramping up all these other modes of bloodshed in lieu of CW? And what would Trump’s reaction be to TV images of scores of women and children slaughtered by such bombardment, as in a shattered hospital?

Already in a show of military defiance, the Syrians are launching fighter-bomber strikes from the same airfield the US struck last week, and either Russian or Syrian warplanes have again bombed Khan Sheikhoun, the scene of last week’s CW attack. Other rebel-held towns also were hit over the weekend, but it is too soon to tell if the level of these air raids is higher than before April 6. Meanwhile, a statement of Syria’s “allies” replete with threats declared: “Russia and Iran will not allow the United States to be the only superpower in the world.”

Unless Trump and company are willing to consider lunging ever deeper militarily into the Syrian mess, Moscow and Damascus can retaliate by continuing to thumb their noses at Washington by unleashing a new, potentially heavier wave of conventional airstrikes against Syrian civilian targets. Now it is Trump’s turn to put up or shut up. The politico-military consequences of choosing either course would be serious. But backing down, for Trump, would be especially embarrassing. After all, Trump boasted on April 5: “Whether it’s in the Middle East, whether it’s in North Korea…so many other things, I inherited a mess. We’re going to fix it.”

Photo of Rex Tillerson courtesy of the State Department via Flickr.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.


One Comment

  1. With people like this author in positions of influence, it is no wonder that the warmaking, the blaming of others, the destruction and the hubris continue.

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