Tuesday, April 11, 2017


Trump’s cruise missile attack on the Syrian Shayrat air base in response to Syrian President Assad’s use of poison gas on the civilian population of a town in rebel controlled territory has been the subject of the usual over analysis by the press as they rush to quote any “expert”, politician, or spokesman for various political groups.  Overall however, the response has been positive and remarkably bi-partisan for a Trump initiative.  Still, a few outliers have found an audience.  

California Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu speculated that Trump chose to attack Assad’s airbase in order to deflect attention from the Russian “connection” investigations underway in the Congress and FBI.  

The idea that the current press and Democratic feeding frenzy surrounding the possibility of Trump campaign officials colluding with the Russians to affect the 2016 election could in any way be over shadowed by a single missile attack seems simply like another attempt to discredit the Trump administration.

Hawaii Democratic Congresswomen Tulsi Gabbard  said she had doubts that Assad was even the one responsible for the nerve gas attack, citing the “possibility” that ISIS or al- Qaeda was responsible. She quickly deleted her Tweet making this claim in the apparent realization of it’s complete absurdity.  But not to be deterred by a lack of understanding of the Syrian conflict or international security dynamics, she went on to say: 
“It angers and saddens me that President Trump has taken the advice of war hawks and escalated our illegal regime change war to overthrow the Syrian government. This escalation is short-sighted and will lead to more dead civilians, more refugees, the strengthening of al-Qaeda and other terrorists, and a possible nuclear war between the United States and Russia.”

This seems more than a bit incredible given the fact that outside observers have laid the blame on the Syrian air force and the fact that the terrorist organizations do not have the delivery systems to launch such an attack.  
The fact that this isolated attack hardly constitutes a “regime change war” or that it could in any way lead Russia and the United States to consider a “nuclear war” simply identifies Gabbard as someone who should not be attempting to influence American foreign policy.

The Russian government, an ally and military partner of Assad, claimed the attack was a violation of the “sovereignty” of the Syrian state and Russian President Putin has adopted the “Gabbard analysis” that rebel forces gassed their own in order to discredit the Assad regime.  That the U.S. attack was a violation of Syrian sovereignty is an absurd charge given the fact that a whole array of foreign fighters are currently engaged in military operations within the borders of Syria.

Turkish forces and Kurds, Iranian troops and their Lebanese clients Hezbollah, an international force operating under the flag of the Islamic State, U.S. advisors and forward air controllers, and of course the Russians themselves, flying combat missions on behalf of Assad, make Syrian sovereignty a mythical concept.  Syria is essentially a failed state quickly approaching the anarchical condition of Libya which would likely be the result if Assad is deposed without a strong agreement among the many rebel forces regarding a replacement government and a joint mission to defeat the Islamic State in their midst.

The actual reasons and justifications for Trump’s rapid response to the Syrian gas attack are mostly like a combination of the following:

Trump could actually have been personally angered by the use of poison gas and the deaths of civilians including small children. Democrats won’t give him credit for such humanity but that most probably was a part of the equation.  

A response to the use of chemical weapons by Assad was particularly politically significant given the lack of a response by Obama under similar circumstances in 2013.  Obama’s famous “red line” threat to Assad which he abandoned when Assad ignored it and attacked civilians with rockets containing nerve gas, no doubt played a part in Trump’s decision in order to underline the difference between Obama’s passivity in the face of unacceptable violence and his own determination to respond.

Depending on who participated in the strike decision, it probably included the thought that even though the strike was narrowly configured, it would send a significant message of a new forthrightness in the face of hostilities to Iran, Russia, North Korea and China, whose President XI was visiting Trump at his Florida resort when the attack occurred.  Obama’s policies of “patient diplomacy” and “leading from behind” have emboldened Iran to interfere in Middle East conflicts, Russia to expand into Ukrainian territory and intervene in Syria, North Korea to expedite its nuclear programs and long range missile technology, and China to expand aggressively into the South China Sea. 
 It is too late for Trump to roll back these policies but a new assertiveness on the part of the U.S. to redefine its roll in international security may at least give pause to the leaders of these aggressive acts and give confidence to the nations directly affected by them.

Underlying all the possible motives of course is the expectation that America’s immediate response will deter Assad from such use of internationally banned chemicals in the future, although that would be a limited benefit as it is unlikely to deter Assad from pursuing the war with the use of conventional weapons as long as he has the military support of Russia and Iran.

Meanwhile, in the diplomatic arena, the American response was generally well received by a number of foreign governments in Europe and the Middle East.  In the domestic political context of course the usual complaints and concerns were voiced by a few members of Congress of both parties.  These politicians wanted to be part of the decision to attack Assad, citing Constitutional requirements for “declarations of war”, or the more common modern use of resolutions approving the use of armed force.  

The problems with application of such formal procedures to a quick response such as was carried out are obvious.  A contentious debate in the Congress hardly allows for a surprise attack.  Anything less escalates any attack by engaging air defense systems which would then require a larger force to suppress or overwhelm those defenses. 

But Trump did not “declare war” on Syria, nor was his strike a prelude to a state of war.  It was a  single discreet act with narrow purposes.  Precedent exists in Reagan’s bombing attack on Muammar Gaddafi’s compound in Libya in 1986 in retaliation for Libyan agents bombing of a night club frequented by American servicemen in Germany.  In 1998, President Clinton     attempted to retaliate against Osama bin Laden for his alleged role in the East Africa U.S. embassy bombings by launching Tomahawk cruise missiles against two targets--several 
bin Laden training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan.  

This does not make the case that large scale deployments of U.S. troops or sustained air operations against foreign troops or military sites should not require consultation and approval in some form by the Congress.  Resolutions approving the use of armed force have been the most common vehicle for this purpose. The missile strike on a single Syrian air base did not fit this circumstance; however a policy or threat of subsequent strikes in response to similar attacks by the Assad government would.

Critic’s on the Left and far Right decry the absence of a Trump Syrian “strategy” ignoring the fact that this is an international problem now six years old, and in the face of contradictory interests and the inherent complexity of two overlapping conflicts involving numerous ethnic, sectarian and foreign powers, the lack of an international consensus regarding goals and tactics has made a U.S. national strategy impossible.  Some things are clear however and should guide the Trump administration’s role moving forward.

One basic reality is that the U.S. has no vital interest in the future of Syria that would justify a major intervention of U.S. military resources or the long term commitment that such an intervention would require.  The Syrian civil war is a humanitarian crisis brought on by the long term simmering sectarian hostilities under a brutal minority regime.  The crisis was ignited by the unorganized and leaderless uprising stimulated by the so called “Arab Spring movements beginning in 2011.  

Humanitarian crises are best left to the international community to address through the United Nations or the most affected regional states.  The embedded conflict with the Islamic State, which claims the Syrian city of Raqqa as its capital however, is also an international issue with which the U.S. does have vital security interests and which is largely dependent on U.S. participation to bring to a conclusion. 

 Although this conflict involves some of the same participants as the civil war against the Syrian government, it can and should be, resolved 
first for two reasons.  
It is essentially a military conflict, not a political one, and as such it can be won with the proper commitment of forces. Negotiations involving compromise with the terrorist Islamic State are neither possible nor desirable.  
Secondly, the removal of the Islamic State from Syria will reduce the complexity and contradictory nature of the alignment of forces in the Syrian civil war.  

Thus, the Trump “Syrian strategy” should be to continue its support for the coalition engaged against the Islamic State to eradicate its presence in Syria as quickly as possible and then step back.
The scenarios for the settlement of the civil war are beyond the responsibility or capability of the U.S. given the presence of Iranian and Russian forces.  Regime change as a U.S. policy is thus not a viable “strategy’ barring the cooperation of these governments.

It is highly unlikely that the Assad government can be defeated as long as it has the support of the Russian and Iranian militaries. Cease fire agreements have been tried and failed but may be negotiated again. However, unless Russia and Iran change their policies of intervention, the struggle will either reach stalemate or end with the exhaustion of the rebel forces.  

Proposals involving “partition” of Syria are not possible with the continued presence of the Islamic State. If the IS is defeated, such proposals still are in the realm of fantasy. It is unlikely that either the Assad regime or the Sunni rebel forces would agree to a partial victory. In any case there are at least four defined sectarian groups in Syria which would have to be provided autonomous territory.  

The major group, non-Kurdish Sunnis, are divided themselves by regional and tribal identities and are highly competitive. One of those groups is an al-Qaeda affiliate and most are Islamist in political orientation. Arbitrary boundaries separating these regions would have to be enforced by an international “police force”.  
The UN is ill equipped to provide this service.  UN Peacekeepers are not enforcers, they are lightly armed observers, and would be inadequate either in numbers or ability to provide this function.  Regional players and  European nations have shown little motivation to commit ground troops to Middle Eastern conflicts, thus leaving the task primarily up to the U.S.  

An equitable division of territory with respect to natural and economic resources i.e. water,  sea ports, fossil fuels etc., would be impossible and without a central government to conduct national policies. Chaos and conflict would be the short term result. 

There is no long term resolution to the conflict on the horizon. Cessation of hostilities in the interest of the civilian population is a theoretical but temporary possibility but any long term solution will almost certainly require the end of the Assad regime.  

The ensuing power vacuum and the lack of a common vision for the future political character of a “new Syria” among the numerous tribal and sectarian groups will require a “nation building” process of daunting proportions.  The U.S. experience in such efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq make a similar role in Syria a military, political and economic non-starter.