Looking for lines in the sand in Syria

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Joseph MicallefLines are being drawn in the sand in Syria, but the sand keeps shifting.

Former U.S. president Barack Obama’s administration resolutely declared that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had to go. It said he was an obstacle to the peaceful resolution of the Syrian civil war and that his use of chemical weapons against civilians was a red line whose crossing would precipitate an American response. In the end, however, the Obama White House did nothing.

President Donald Trump’s administration, on the other hand, declared through two of its most senior foreign policy officials – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley – that the future of the Assad government was in the hands of the Syrian people. It signalled that replacing the Assad government was no longer an American objective and tacitly acknowledged that Assad was here to stay.

But no sooner had the White House declared this reversal of American policy regarding the Assad government than Trump, in response to the Assad government’s use of deadly sarin gas, ordered the launching of 59 cruise missiles against the Syrian military air base at Shayrat. The Syrian chemical attack at the village of Khan Shaykhun in the northern Idlib district killed about 100 Syrian civilians.

The cruise missile launch was the first time the U.S. had directly attacked Syrian government forces. The policy reversal came with no warning. Previous comments from Tillerson and Haley made no mention of nor warned the Assad government against the use of chemical weapons.

The missiles were launched from the destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The Pentagon used the euphemistically labeled “Deconfliction” communications line to advise the Russian military of the impending attack. Presumably, the Kremlin passed the warning on to the Syrian military. According to the Syrian government, the attack resulted in at least seven fatalities. The Pentagon did not disclose how much advance warning it gave the Russians of the attack. The Shayrat air base is large. Given the low number of fatalities, it must have been sufficient to allow Syrian and Russian personnel to take shelter.

Significantly, the communication was handled directly by the Pentagon to their Russian counterparts. No attempt was made to advise the Kremlin or Russian President Vladimir Putin separately, even though the attack might have placed Russians at risk.

And the Assad government made no attempt to use its highly-vaunted and recently upgraded air defence system. That’s puzzling. The system might have shot down some of the Tomahawks, although a significant number would have gotten through regardless.

There was no way Syria could have known, unless the Pentagon advised beforehand, that U.S. planes were not going to follow the missile attack. If the Syrians were told that an additional air attack was not forthcoming, it might have made sense to keep the air defence system off. Engaging it would have given the U.S. a valuable opportunity to assess its weakness and vulnerabilities. And that would be critical information if the Americans were to launch an air attack in the future.

Predictably, the Kremlin was quick to brand the attack an example of “unprovoked American aggression” against a “sovereign government” and to offer support to their Syrian ally. Russian and Syrian media tried to deflect blame for the chemical attack on Syrian rebel groups, claiming that a Syrian government missile had struck a warehouse where the rebels were storing chemical weapons.

American and Turkish medical sources were quick to identify the symptoms as either the result of sarin gas or, worse, a chemical weapons cocktail of sarin gas and other unidentified agents. Dr. Annie Sparrow, a public health specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, even suggested the Syrian and Russian governments may have been testing new lethal combinations of chemical weapons.

Competing resolutions were quickly introduced at the UN Security Council. One by Russia, one by the U.S. and its allies and a third by a group of 10 nonaligned members of the Security Council. It’s unlikely, however, that any action from the UN will be forthcoming. Any substantive action would bring a quick Russian veto.

The use of chemical weapons on civilians by the Assad government was not only an unconscionable act of terror against civilians and a war crime. It was also profoundly stupid. It’s clear that the Assad regime is going to survive. The Syrian rebel forces have been ousted from Aleppo and are under attack in Homs and Idlib province, their last stronghold. The U.S. has made it clear that it is prepared to live with the Assad regime, however distasteful.

Turkey, which considered an invasion of Syria to depose the Assad regime, has been stymied. All-out war in Syria would be highly unpopular in Turkey. Moreover, given the Russian backing of Syria, a Turkish invasion would require U.S. support, which the U.S. has made clear it’s not willing to give, at least so far.

The Islamic State, which could have posed a threat to the Assad government, especially if it could rally other jihadist groups to support it, is slowly being ground down by Russian-backed Syrian Armed Forces and the American-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

So Assad has won. While there continues to be a determined opposition to his regime, it’s unlikely any one group can oust him. With Russian and Iranian backing, the Assad government will slowly but inexorably overcome the Syrian rebels. At the same time, U.S.-backed forces will eventually dismantle the Islamic State.

So using chemical weapons was an unnecessary provocation of the world community in general and of the U.S. in particular. It might have been understandable, although no less reprehensible, if the Assad regime was on the ropes. Given that they have effectively won the civil war, it was profoundly stupid.

So where does Washington go from here?

The American response has been described as measured. More than a token response, it was enough to do serious damage to the Assad government’s air forces. But it stopped short of putting American lives at risk and the forewarning minimized Syrian and Russian casualties.

But how will the U.S. respond if Syria again resorts to chemical weapons? Worse still, will the Assad government try to retaliate against the 2,000-odd American troops supporting the SDF in Syria?

If the Kremlin has anything to say about it, they won’t. The last thing Russia wants is a direct confrontation with U.S. forces over Syria.

Given the continued claims that Trump’s election was achieved by the surreptitious intervention of the Russian government, the Kremlin understands well enough that the Trump administration can’t afford to back down in a confrontation with Russia. That would only fuel further allegations of Russian influence in the White House.

What’s troubling is the abrupt manner in which the Trump administration reversed policy on Syria. Assad’s barbarism is not exactly news. There have been persistent reports about the Syrian military’s use of chemical weapons. The White House’s acceptance of the reality of the Syrian situation and the continuation of the Assad regime was objective and pragmatic. It had not been qualified or tempered by any preconditions regarding the use of chemical weapons.

On the battlefield, tactical unpredictability is an advantage. Hitting an opponent when and where they least expect it is usually a winning formula. Strategic unpredictability, however, is altogether different. Governments are wise to signal which issues are important and which are not. For superpowers, it’s doubly important. It’s one thing for a government to keep an opponent guessing about how it will respond. It’s a different issue altogether to be unclear about whether they will respond. That’s how countries blunder into wars.

Iraq’s Saddam Hussein gave the U.S. clear signals he was contemplating an aggressive action against Kuwait, even if the debate still rages as to whether those signals pointed to a full-scale ground invasion. America’s ambivalence convinced him his action wouldn’t be opposed. Hence his surprise that the U.S. expressed shock and outrage to the invasion of Kuwait and promptly assembled an international coalition to reverse it.

Ditto for al-Qaeda’s attack on Sept. 11. One of the startling revelations from the interrogation of attack architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was that Osama bin Laden and the leadership of al-Qaeda had concluded, based on the previous responses of the Clinton administration to acts of terror by al-Qaeda – the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy bombing, the attack on the USS Cole and the first attack on the World Trade Center, among others – that the U.S. would react with a token response. They were shocked when suddenly the 101st Airborne began falling from the skies.

There is no defence for the barbarism of the Assad regime. There are many who will argue that the U.S. response was a long time coming and that had the Obama administration shown more resolve, the scope and intensity of the violence in Syria today might have been curtailed.

Nonetheless, making policy on the fly is dangerous. Having now drawn a line in the sand, it’s essential that the Trump administration clearly delineate what the U.S. policy related to Syria is going to be. That doesn’t mean it needs to publish a list of projected responses to specific acts. But it clearly needs to define where the red lines are and what actions will precipitate a U.S. military response and which will not.

Anything less risks a confrontation with Moscow and an escalation that neither side needs nor wants.

Joseph Micallef is an historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics.

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