National Security & Defense

Let’s Not Celebrate Trump’s Renewed Interest in Syria

President Trump with Secretary of Defense James Mattis at a Cabinet meeting, Nov. 1, 2017. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
We’ve been involved there for half a decade. That’s enough.

This morning the president of the United States tweeted that we don’t care about Russia’s stated plans to intercept any missiles we might lob at their ally, the Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad. He was tweeting in the spirit of a man cutting a promo for a pro-wrestling match on television. It was an unhinged, cartoonish promise of violence. Then, about two hours later, he was tweeting in an apparent spirit of self-pity: “Much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation, headed up by the all Democrat loyalists, or people that worked for Obama.”

I found it impossible not to conclude that Donald Trump had just told us he was — despite his repeatedly stated wishes — going to take dramatic action on Syria, while daring Russia to oppose us, because he was really feeling the heat after his lawyer’s office got raided. Fine, if you’re going to be so tough on me about this collusion crap, I’ll start a military pissing contest with Russia in Syria.

Trump’s style of belligerence is the only new thing that can be noted or said about the Syrian civil war and our involvement in it. Everything else has been said — and said again for years. Maybe one or two talking points have gone out of style. Hawks rarely refer to the liberal and secular “moderate rebels” anymore, because, frankly no one would believe it.

But let’s say it all again. Noah Rothman, a peer and, dare I say, a friend, tells us that the latest gas attack in Syria, shows us the risk of non-intervention. This is just the latest in five years of disagreements I’ve had with Noah on Syria. And like so many disagreements about Syria these days, it begins with a disagreement about the facts. I ask: What non-intervention?

The U.S. has been actively intervening in Syria for half a decade. We’ve been funneling in weapons. Our intelligence agencies and the Defense Department have been choosing and outfitting rebel groups. We have thousands of Special Forces on the ground. This all has worked to extend the Syrian civil war, making it bloodier and longer than it would otherwise have been. Was it non-intervention when the U.S. government vetted and funded Nour al-Din al-Zenki, the Islamist group that made itself infamous for a video in which they beheaded a young boy?

Our leadership class’s on-and-off-again attempts to convince itself and America to intervene more dramatically in Syria presents a constant moral hazard. If the right kind of outrage will bring in American air support, the rebels obviously have an overwhelming interest in making sure they behave outrageously and that their atrocities are publicized. If any other country on earth was doing these things in a distant land, who would dare call it a policy of non-intervention?

Rothman writes, “Obama’s attempt to secure congressional support for a strike on Syria wasn’t some noble deference to the role of Congress. He was simply looking for a plausible excuse for inaction.” It’s true that Obama didn’t seem eager to secure congressional approval of other military interventions, such as in Libya. But the unwillingness of Congress to support action against Assad reflected the feelings of Americans (roughly seven in ten opposed), and it actually does constitute a good reason not to intervene today. We should not send soldiers into a long war without the support of the American people.

Western pundits breezily tell us that only Assad could have carried out these attacks against the rebels of Jaish-al-Islam (The Army of Islam). But it wasn’t that long ago that the Kurds — our on-the-ground allies against ISIS — had accused Jaish-al-Islam of using precisely the same chemical weapons alleged to have been used last weekend.

But even if we accept at face value the story presented to us, what is America’s national interest in avenging the deaths of a group that makes part of its platform the genocide of Alawites?

Another peer and friend, Eli Lake, writes at Bloomberg today that opponents of a deeper intervention in Syria are merely gun-shy after the Iraq disaster:

It’s important to learn from the mistakes of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. However Washington is not becoming wiser from this experience, but simply skittish — leading to impotence as the Levant burns.

Is it skittishness? Or justified skepticism? Whatever one says about the Iraq War, a large majority of Americans had been persuaded by bad intelligence to support it when it was launched. Many in America’s expert class had convinced themselves that they had met a number of liberal-minded Iraqi leaders who might exercise power once Iraq was freed from Baathist tyranny.

No such illusions exist about Syria. The reason there’s so little firsthand reporting from the site of these alleged chemical attacks is that any Western noncombatant who fell into the hands of the existing rebel groups, such as the Army of Islam, would be used as ransom or bait or a human shield. We don’t really know what happened in Douma, because Western media mostly gathers their facts from the rebels themselves. Quite literally, Western journalists report about the happenings in the Syrian civil war from their homes in London and New York, peering at the war only through WhatsApp chatrooms.

The more that great or regional powers (the U.S., Turkey, Russia, Iran) invest their resources and credibility in various objectives in Syria, the greater the danger that a minor player will make a miscalculation that leads the great powers into a direct conflict.

If, as Rex Tillerson stated, America’s goal is a “post-Assad future,” what do we expect to come after him? There is no reason to believe that the existing rebel groups would ever be accepted by the Syrian people as their rightful leaders. Alawites dominate in Syria’s cities. They are unlikely to accept battle-hardened Sunni radicals as their next government. When rebels were chased out of Aleppo, barely one-third of the people in that city accepted safe passage to the Idlib Province. Would a new government still host a Russian naval base? And if not, how would the Russians react to that government and its American sponsors?

And that brings up the worst risk of all. The more that great or regional powers (the U.S., Turkey, Russia, Iran) invest their resources and credibility in various objectives in Syria, the greater the danger that a minor player (the Kurds, the Sunni Islamists, or even Assad) will make a miscalculation that leads the great powers into a direct conflict. Every group involved in Syria is pursuing its own interests, but all are doing so even as the United States government has two positions on Syria: the president’s and his administration’s. And both of those positions seem to be in constant motion, jumping one way or another with the news cycle and in relation to each other.

Trump seems to respond emotionally to reports of chemical attacks. Last April, after the release of a nerve agent in Khan Shaykhoun, Trump, speaking at a news conference, said:

Yesterday’s chemical attack — a chemical attack so horrific in Syria against innocent people including women, small children, and even beautiful little babies, their deaths — was an affront to humanity.  . . . When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal — people were shocked to hear what gas it was. That crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines.

He vowed to respond. Sixty cruise missiles promptly landed in one of Assad’s airfields.

I don’t doubt Trump’s emotions. And I also don’t doubt that he is easily manipulated by those around him and by the media. When the media puts the Eye of Sauron on a figure in his White House, that person usually ends up being fired. The media keep suggesting he is a pawn of Vladimir Putin’s, and this morning Trump seemed to suggest he would humiliate Putin just to mollify his critics and satisfy his emotions.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why hawks would be pleased that a vindictive man like Donald Trump, a man of apparently no strategic vision, who responds terribly to slights, wants to get more involved in sorting through the smithereens of the slow-motion destruction of the Sykes-Picot agreement borders and political arrangements.

If we care about international norms and about civilian life, if Trump cares about small children and “even beautiful little babies,” here’s a foreign-policy suggestion: Stop assisting Saudi Arabia in their squalid and utterly futile campaign to re-install a puppet regime in Yemen, one that has included the bombing of hospitals and the blockading of Yemen as it undergoes a cholera crisis and famine-like food shortages. Stop exacerbating the massive Sunni–Shia war within the Islamic world, one that is producing an ocean of blood, cleansing the region of all non-Muslims, and erecting even nastier despotisms wherever it spreads.


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