As described in this space last week, the situation in and around Syria is quite complicated. We are where we are today because last Saturday Syrian aircraft dropped gas bombs on civilians in the rebel held town of Douma. In the ongoing fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the rebels, and those civilians around them, continue to be subject to crimes against humanity. Photographs and videos of the resulting injuries and the wrenching reactions of those hit by the gas have gone viral and provoked a response from the president as well as a likely response by France and the United Kingdom.
One could reasonably ask, why now? International monitors believe that this is the eighth time that the Syrians have used gas against civilians in the last year. Usually, they use chlorine gas which is not technically banned under international law. Of course it is not banned because it is not supposed to be used as a weapon, but when dropped in high concentrations in confined spaces it can cause severe lung damage, leading to liquid forming in the lungs and inducing severe pneumonia. The effects usually take time to cause damage and it is not automatically fatal. The gas used last Saturday is believed to have been chlorine gas with some other agent mixed in with it. Based on the videos, experts believe that a nerve agent, probably Sarin, was the other ingredient. Sarin is man-made, colorless and odorless, but causes immediate and severe reactions from touching, breathing or ingesting it and often causes a quick but horrible death. One can debate the morality of reacting to Sarin attacks but not to chlorine attacks, but the international community has drawn that line.
Currently, officials from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are investigating if gas was used, and if so, what types of chemical weapons were used in Douma. The effectiveness of their investigation is doubtful so many days after the incident, especially since most of the people impacted by the attack died or left the city. However, military action, if any (and I believe there will be) will likely be delayed while the OPCW is on the ground.
A complicating factor is that the Russian military is heavily invested in Syria in support of the regime.
The U.S. has a history of trying to deter Bashar’s use of chemical weapons. Recall that in 2012 President Obama suggested that Syrian use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” requiring a response. The next year Syria used chemical weapons. After failing to get an international response, especially from the U.K., coupled with the lack of support in the U.S. Congress for military action in Syria, President Obama backed away from his red line. As I wrote at the time, that was a huge mistake.
As a consequence, the U.N. Security Council brokered an agreement whereby Syria would destroy all of its chemical weapons. With Russian assistance, the OPCW removed “all” of the chemical stockpiles, completing the job in June 2014. Russia “guaranteed” that all of the weapons were removed or destroyed — with the exception of chlorine gas.
In 2017 Syria was found to have used Sarin agents against its population. In April last year, Mr. Trump ordered cruise missile attacks against the airfield used to launch the weapons. While I joined others in applauding the decision to strike Syria, the actual strike was a mere hand slap. Mostly it destroyed a few planes on the ground and put some holes in the runways at the air base. They were back up and operating in a few days. More to the point, the strike clearly did not act as a deterrent to further use of chemical weapons.
This is where it gets dicey. To effectively punish Bashar and his regime, the U.S. — hopefully with participation and support from our Allies in France and the U.K — must hit him where it hurts. Targets should be some combination of command and control centers, headquarters buildings, and the locations of the secret police, for example. The counter argument is that Russian citizens and military personnel are very likely to be at some of those targets. Killing Russians in an attack on Syria could easily lead to a full-blown crisis and could endanger our ground troops in Eastern Syria fighting with the Kurds against ISIS. Indeed, the Russians have vowed to defend Syria against, and to retaliate for, any attack. Thus the president’s taunt/threat/thoughtless statement in the Tweet above is directed at Russia.
A tactical strike such as the one carried out last year is relatively easy and low risk. However, based on the ineffective results from our previous strike, coupled with Russian threats, it may make the U.S. look weak. To conduct a much larger attack, with real consequences to Syria, raises the stakes immeasurably and could include manned aircraft. Manned aircraft. Real people going in harm’s way. While I have every confidence in our military aviators, nothing is fool-proof. American lives could be lost or pilots captured. In particular, the Russians have installed sophisticated air defense missiles in Syria that were not there at the time of our Tomahawk strike last year. In addition, the Russians have repeatedly said that they would go after the sources of any attack. Once an attack is underway, the dogs of war are unleashed and it is impossible to project all of the consequences. Syria is a tinder box waiting to explode among the many factions involved.
It is unlikely that the Russians would be able to effectively reach ships and submarines launching missiles hundreds of miles out in the Mediterranean Sea or to reach air bases in Qatar or other locations in the Middle East that may be used to launch aircraft. But they could intercept them. And any commander worth their salt will want to know the plan for protecting our forces in Eastern Syria who would definitely be within the reach and capability of the Russians to hit them. Recall that last February Russian “contractors” (they still insist on calling them that) attacked a U.S. base.
Syria is a difficult dilemma. I feel confident that our military leaders and the Secretary of Defense are putting forth the best options to achieve the mission. What bothers me are the reckless statements of the Commander-in-Chief and his lack of ability to coherently articulate any strategic vision or overall goal for our involvement in Syria. It cannot be an impulsive reaction, an attempt to divert attention from events surrounding his extracurricular activities, or just an exercise in video game perceptions of what combat actual entails.
The military is ready and capable of carrying out their mission and to protect the good citizens of these United States. The use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated and must be punished — not only for now but for the future — in order to make clear that the international community condemns their use in no uncertain terms. However, let’s not do so lightly. Actions have consequences. This is not some theoretical exercise of military might. The lives of real people are at stake. It is not too much to ask the Commander-in-Chief to act like it.
This week the president vowed that he would remove U.S. troops from Syria in the near future. Here is part of what he said at an impromptu news conference at the White House on Tuesday:
“I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. So, it’s time. It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS. But sometimes it’s time to come back home, and we’re thinking about that very seriously, okay?”
Nearly simultaneously, also in Washington, General Joseph L. Votel, Commander of the U.S. Central Command who is the senior officer responsible for our troops in the Middle East said when talking about our troop deployments in the Middle East:
“A lot of very good military progress has been made over the last couple of years, but the hard part, I think, is in front of us.”
Putting aside Mr. Trump’s inability, or stubborn refusal to understand complex issues, war in the 21st century, and especially in places like Syria and Afghanistan, runs counter to our preconceived notions of what “winning” should be about. Mr. Trump seems to think that all that is necessary is to “bomb the hell out of them” and then come home. Seventeen years of continuous combat has provided many lessons learned to our current military leadership and to our Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who himself lead the first ground combat troops into Afghanistan while he was an active duty Marine general.
One important criteria for deciding who is winning and who is losing is finding the correct Measures of Effectiveness (MOE). One may think they are winning while actually losing. The classic example can be found with the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II. The German MOE was tons of Allied merchant ships sunk by their submarines. It was the wrong measure. The Allies were building merchant ships at a rate faster than the Germans could sink them, and at the same time, were sinking German submarines (and even more importantly, killing trained and experienced crews) faster than the Germans could build them. The Germans were losing, even as their MOE showed them winning.
Current reports indicate that our military is using over 90 MOEs in assessing our wars in Syria and Afghanistan. But even they reportedly admit that they are not sure that they are necessarily measuring the right things. One thing we know, counting the numbers of killed or wounded adversaries means very little if new recruits, fighting a low-tech war, continue to flow into the battles.
The other adage learned over and over is that the loser gets to decide when the war is over. As Ryan Crocker former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan said, “As we learned so painfully in Iraq, defeat has meaning only in the eyes of the defeated.” We can bomb the hell out of them all we want, but short of a Dresden-like annihilation of every living thing, as long as the other side keeps fighting, the war is not over. This is another of the hard lessons learned in Viet Nam and again in Afghanistan. The Taliban have not quit, therefore we have been there for seventeen long years despite our overwhelming military capability.
In that vein, ISIS still has strongholds in eastern Syria along the border with Iraq. In this case, our adversary is like a cancer — if they are not totally excised and destroyed they will spread out again. All of the pain in administering a cure will have been for naught. ISIS is showing signs of renewed strength in their last strongholds in eastern Syria. Our comrades in arms in Syria are mostly Kurdish forces. Kurdish officials warn that it could take “years and years” to finish off ISIS.
Senior U.S. government national security and military officials understand this fact. They also understand the larger geo-political issues at stake in the Middle East and South Asia and that a precipitous withdrawal of our forces would do long-term damage to our national interests. The issues are complicated and varied. Among other things, our credibility in supporting our friends and allies would be compromised. As a senior Kurdish official is quoted as saying, if the U.S. leaves now (or even in a few months) “it would be a disaster, and even ordinary people in the street will consider it a betrayal.” That has strategic implications. Or as another Kurdish leader put it, “after fighting for four years, there is a kind of trust between the Kurdish nation and the American nation. If the Americans abandon the Kurds, it means they are never going to find any friends in the Middle East.”
That the military viewpoint is at odds with the president may have caused the ouster of National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. General McMaster continually told the president that we cannot just pull up stakes and leave Syria and Afghanistan, or anywhere else, without first creating the conditions that allow us to withdraw. If we just walk away, the problems will pop up again.
Of course, we want all of our military women and men to come home. But if we are truly a world power, certain obligations and responsibilities accrue in support of our friends and allies. Putting America first does not, or at least should not, mean abandoning a world order that has mostly kept the United States safe and prosperous and the world moving forward. We can lead or get out of the way. It is not in our long-term interest to abandon our leadership role in the world.
In the last forty-eight hours the White House has softened the president’s earlier statements. The new announcement says that the U.S. will stay in Syria until ISIS is defeated and that we will then “transition” to local forces over time. No time frame was enumerated, but reporting indicates that the president wants to bring home the troops from Syria in about six months or so. Contrast that to the statements above by those that are actually doing the fighting that it will take years and years.
Syria is a particularly knotty problem. Over the last few years, there have been arguments both pro and con for U.S. involvement in the country. The effort to push ISIS out of Iraq necessarily meant that we had to continue to chase them into Syria in order to prevent that nation from becoming a refuge for them. Borders in the desert are very fluid. It was necessary to hunt them down and eliminate all sources of support to their regime. We made good progress in doing that, but the job is not finished. So we are in Syria. What does that mean?
In Syria, you can’t tell the players without a score card. The players include the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad, Russians, Israelis, Iranians, Hezbollah, Turks, Kurds, Syrian rebels, ISIS, the U.S. and factions within factions of several of those groups with religious overtones to it all.
It is important to remember that the conflict in Syria started with peaceful protests that were broken up by Syrian troops firing into crowds which then evolved into a civil war. ISIS took advantage of the turmoil as Bashar lost control of much of Syria’s territory. Other nations took sides in the civil war and supported proxy troops or committed their own combat forces to support one faction or another.
The situation on the ground and in the air has the wherewithal to mutate into a regional conflict. All of which has nothing to do with whether or not ISIS is “done.” Half a dozen nations have combat aircraft in a very small area. The U.S., Russia, Turkey, and Iran all have their own troops on the ground often supporting different factions that oppose each other in the war. In a single week in early February, Israel, Russia, Turkey and Iran lost aircraft to hostile fire.
And oh by the way, did you know that Russian “contractors” (Mercenaries? Little green men from Crimea?) attacked a U.S. base at Deir Ezzor in Syria in mid-February? What? You didn’t hear about that? Could it be because neither the U.S. or Russian leaders wanted to talk about it? It was no “accident.” Russia and US forces have a hot line to de-conflict combat forces and missions. According to the on-scene battle field commander, the U.S. notified the Russians that they were attacking a U.S. base. The attack continued. U.S. air strikes turned back the assault with an estimate of over 200 Russians killed. Many analysts surmise that this attack, that could only have been approved on a national level, was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to see just how committed the U.S. was to our involvement in Syria.
To further complicate matters, Turkey, our NATO ally, is attacking the Kurds — our primary ally in the battle against ISIS. Those Kurdish forces were drawn away from the fight against ISIS last month when the Turks attacked a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria and the fighters returned home to protect their families. The Kurds are fighting for an autonomous region in their traditional homeland which is an anathema to Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, all of which actively oppose any independent Kurdish state or de facto state.
And Syrian civilians continue to suffer from barrel bombs, enforced starvation, and other crimes against humanity.
Mr. Trump wants “rich” middle eastern countries to take over the U.S. commitment, but what does that mean? Troops? Not going to happen. Money? Perhaps, to help rebuild cities or to get industries up and running such as oil refineries or other areas where money is needed. Where does the technical know how come from? Regardless, nothing can happen until stability returns to the region and the population.
The president wants “other nations” to take over. The last time I looked, they are doing so. Talks began earlier this month among Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Conspicuously absent was the U.S. We were not invited to the talks. No seat at the table means we will have no say in the future of Syria. That is dangerous to our long-term interests in the Middle East and our ally Israel.
After the first round of talks, those three countries expressed their support to Bashar and his regime. A long stated goal of the U.S. was to remove him. The statement went on to say that they support “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of the neighboring countries.” This is easily translated to mean that Bashar will stay, his regime will stay, and in playground terms it means they expect the U.S. to butt out.
In case we missed their point, the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia declared that the areas controlled by the U.S. and the Kurds, the second largest swath of territory in Syria behind that controlled by the regime, cannot be used to create “new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism.”
Furthermore, Turkish president Recep Ergogan threatened to attack U.S. troops supporting the Kurds. And they are a NATO ally.
It is clear that the problem in Syria, and elsewhere, is not a lack of firepower. The problems are political and stem from the ability — or in this case the inability — of the government to govern. When all is said and done, the twenty-first century may need a new definition for “winning.” As we are quickly learning, it is not entirely clear what that definition might be. Developing a political solution that leads to a stable governing entity would be part of it. Unfortunately, we cannot be a part of developing that solution if we pull up stakes and go home.
There are good and bad reasons to continue to stay in Syria or Afghanistan. We have already learned in this century that ungoverned territories, with no central governing authority, creates the conditions that allow terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS and others to grow. We know that these groups threaten the rule of law and a normal world order.
In order to protect our shores in this environment, we need to think in new ways about our nation’s wars. Nobody wants American lives wasted in far off lands that most of us could not have located on a map in the last century. At the same time we need some strategic thinking about what the long-term impact of our actions will be. There are many experienced and bright people in the Pentagon and elsewhere that are working through these issues. The answers are difficult and sometimes come at the cost of blood and treasure. They are not fail proof. There can be several “right” answers to the problems we face and reasonable people can reasonably disagree as to which ones to pursue.
There is also a “wrong” answer. That answer is to arbitrarily make decisions for the sole purpose of demonstrating that people have to do whatever one man says just because he says it. It is especially wrong when that man does not understand the implications of his decisions, and apparently, thinks no further ahead about the issue than whether it can fit into a tweet or not.
War is nasty and complicated. We are facing new challenges in real time. Critical thinking and new ways of defining our goals and missions is needed. Syria is only one of many such dilemmas we will face in the coming years.
As you probably heard, on Sunday a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian SU-22 Fitter ground attack bomber. This was the first air-to-air destruction of a piloted aircraft by the U.S. since 1999 and the second by a NATO aircraft in the region following the November 2015 shoot down of a Syrian SU-24 by a Turkish Air Force F-16. Both Syria and their ally Russia immediately protested the action. In addition, the Russians declared that any U.S. or coalition aircraft flying “west of the Euphrates River” while Russian or Syrian aircraft are in the area “will be considered air targets” and subject to attack. Today, a U.S. F-15 shot down an armed Iranian drone, the second one this month.
While none of the participants in the many-sided Syrian conflict desire to go to war with each other, and certainly the Russians and the U.S. do not war, the conditions are very volatile in a confined geographic area. This is a dangerous situation that is very susceptible to a mistake or miscalculation by one of the parties leading to a hot war, or at least a serious shooting incident. In short, it is a burning fuse that needs to be snuffed out before reaching the explosives. Given the conflicting goals of those involved, that may be difficult. The situation is exacerbated by the Russian withdrawal from a de-confliction protocol whereby U.S. and coalition aircraft communicate with Russian aircraft to warn and alert each other of their locations and missions. Negotiations are underway to restore that protocol. This is the second time that the Russians withdrew from it, the first coming after the U.S. Navy cruise missile strikes against a Syrian airfield last April. The relationship then was shortly restored.
The shoot downs occurred following Syrian and Iranian attacks on U.S. backed anti-Syrian forces fighting the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Some coalition advisers were near the forces attacked from the air. Following several warnings, the U.S. says it acted in self-defense.
It is difficult to tell the players without a score card. In short, the major players in Syria are Russia, the United States, Turkey, Iran, the United Kingdom, and France. Supplying arms and money to the anti-Assad regime are Saudi Arabia and Qatar. (Remember also that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are involved in their own dispute which resulted in the isolation of Qatar from the outside world. Both are allies of the U.S. but the dispute is serious and involves Qatari relations with Iran, which is engaged in a major struggle with Saudi Arabia for dominance in the region. And, oh by the way, one of the major airfields used by the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) is in Qatar as is the air control headquarters and the Forward Headquarters for the U.S. Central Command. It’s complicated.)
U.S. and coalition forces are mainly fighting from the air, with some U.S. Special Forces on the ground training and advising various militias fighting against ISIS and covertly supporting those aligned against the Syrian regime. Russia supports the Bashar regime and both Russia and Syria consider any group inside of Syria fighting against Bashar’s forces as “terrorists.” This includes those supported by the U.S. coalition. The Russians claim to be fighting ISIS but in actuality they are going after the “terrorists” that oppose Bashar’s regime, which was the case with the recent aircraft and drone attacks leading to the shoot downs. Turkey also opposes the Bashar regime but also opposes the Kurdish PKK (The Kurdistan Workers Party), a group fighting for a Kurdish state carved from Turkey, Syria and Iran. The PKK is considered a terrorist group in Turkey, but many of the forces that have liberated parts of Iraq and Syria from ISIS are other Kurdish forces trained by the U.S. Iran supports the Bashar regime, but also opposes ISIS. Iranian forces and militias are fighting in Syria in support of the regime and in Iraq, in conjunction with Iraqi troops, to root out ISIS. Iran also supports Lebanon’s Hezbollah which is fighting in Syria to support Bashar. In something of a proxy war, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are aiding anti-Bashar forces with money and arms, even as they have their own dispute and Qatar is friendly to Iran.
Got all that? And the country is about as big as the Middle Atlantic states — roughly Richmond to New York City and Pittsburgh to the west.
U.S. policy in Syria has been and is muddled. Since taking over in January, the Trump Administration has not articulated a clear policy or strategy towards Syria. Our focus is primarily on defeating ISIS, an effort that is slowly but steadily eliminating their caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
The lack of a clear strategy in Syria is reflected in the April cruise missile attacks. At the time, I applauded President Trump’s decision to express our dissatisfaction over the Syrian use of chemical weapons. But it was only a one time strike to “send a message” and had no real long-term ramifications or follow-up. There was no strategy behind the strikes. (One way to tell the seriousness of such a military attack is the longevity of the action and the targets chosen. If we really wanted to punish Bashar’s regime the attack would have been centered on Damascus and gone after the Interior Ministry or Ministry of Defense in order to make the decision makers pay a price. Instead we destroyed some aircraft at a remote air base. To truly take on a larger military operation — which I am not advocating — it would have been a much more serious decision that could lead to direct military conflict with Syrian forces, and conceivably Russian forces. While we are concerned with the humanitarian conditions in Syria, it is not currently our policy to resolve the Syrian conflict through combat.)
The take-away from all this is that the Middle East continues to be a tinder box that could go from a smoldering problem to a conflagration without much effort. Despite bluster and name calling, neither the U.S. or Russia want to see the situation escalate — especially against each other. But both nations need to be very careful as other players in the region could relish such a situation in order for them to meet their own priorities and interests, not the least of which is to diminish the stature of the United States in the region and in the world.
These are dangerous times that must be taken seriously. While we are focused on our own internal daily struggles and tweets, we also must keep our heads up and our eyes on the ball. The rest of the world is busy pursuing their own agenda. If we want to be part of events that shape our future, then we must pay attention and clearly state our own goals.
Last night U.S. Navy war ships launched over 50 Tomahawk missiles against an airfield in Syria. The airfield was the base from which the Sarin attacks on civilians were launched earlier this week. We can only speculate at the moment as to where this leads , but I am glad that the Syrian’s actions did not go unpunished. This time, the Trump Administration did the right thing.
The mechanics of delivering the missiles to the target are relatively simple. Well, not simple in the abstract, but simple because the targets were on the list for years and the ships’ crews have practiced endlessly for this type of scenario. They take no pleasure in it, but they understand that this is this their profession and so they professionally executed the mission.
The strikes were tactical and an appropriate and proportional response to send Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad the signal that his actions will have consequences. Now he cannot act without calculating possible future responses from the United States, and hopefully, our allies. It is also an appropriate signal to Russia and Iran that they cannot continue to enable Bashar without consequences. Their rhetoric will increase but it is doubtful that either nation will make an immediate retaliatory response.
The larger question is “what next?” Tactics only make sense in the context of a larger strategy and I am not sure that the Trump Administration has a fully developed strategy for dealing with Syria in the days and months to come. What is apparent, is that the strategy outlined only days ago by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, that we will pay little attention to Syria and the Syrian people will decide their own future, is no longer relevant.
The Syrian Civil War can only end through diplomatic efforts. The U.S. should increase the pressure on Russia and Iran to stop enabling Bashar and to bring him to the table for serious negotiations. This can be accomplished by a combination of diplomatic efforts that hold them responsible for Bashar’s actions and direct pressure, such as through increased sanctions on Russia and Iran. Secretary Tillerson is scheduled to visit Moscow later this month. It will be interesting to see if those talks are still on, and whether Secretary Tillerson can use that opening to put Russian actions in Syria in the spotlight.
On the domestic front, for those White House West Wing watchers that believe “personnel is policy”, several interesting developments occurred in the days leading up to the strike. What it means is not yet entirely clear, but consider what happened. When the statements concerning Syria and our policy were put forward by Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley, Mr. Steve Bannon was thought to be the architect of those statements which reflect his “America First” outlook. Likewise when President Trump put out his inane statement that the Obama Administration was responsible for the chemical attack. The next day, it was announced that Mr. Bannon was demoted and removed from the National Security Council, also leading to his threat to quit and go home (he didn’t — yet). Then the President’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner, probably the only man in the West Wing that President Trump absolutely trusts, returned from a trip to Iraq with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The next day President Trump, in a news conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan, changed his tune on the chemical attack, condemning it in the strongest possible terms, taking responsibility as president, and hinting at further actions. He was then known to meet with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. President Trump then ordered the retaliation last night. Personally, I do not think that the changes in personnel and the influence yielded by his son-in-law and, most importantly, the experienced national security advisers, prior to the Tomahawk strikes, was coincidental.
Only time will tell whether the national security adults in the room will continue to be the most influential or not. There is still much to be worried about in Syria and North Korea. However, this was the right thing to do and a good first step.
With the daily crises that seem to emanate from the Trump White House, it is often difficult to keep track of those things that are important — almost all of it is in some way — and those things that are not only important, but conceivably life changing for our nation. Three of those things come to the forefront this week. One is the events in Syria, two is concern over the ever more belligerent actions of North Korea, and three is the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and the possible resulting use of the “nuclear option” in the Senate that will forever change that body and the future of the Supreme Court. The latter issue is worthy of an entire blog unto itself. Before turning my attention to the first two issues, let me just say briefly that Judge Gorsuch will be on the court for decades to come, so that alone makes it a big deal. Changing the confirmation process to a straight up or down vote will make confirmation of future Supreme Court nominations a purely partisan endeavor with ever more radical judges the norm — by Republican or Democrat presidents — and removing any last vestige of a purely non-partisan Supreme Court. In my view, the Democrats should vote for cloture (allow a vote to go forward without a filibuster) and then vote their conscience as to whether Judge Gorsuch is qualified to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
That said, let’s turn back to the first two issues of international policy. They are important on their own merits as well as for the precedent they may set under the administration of President Trump. Let’s address Syria first.
You undoubtedly saw the heart-wrenching pictures coming from Idlib Syria following a chemical attack on innocent civilians. Reports estimate at least seventy people died a horrific death with hundreds sickened by the toxic chemical — likely Sarin. The Syrians are known to routinely use chlorine gas against opposition fighters, but this attack is significantly different. As you may remember, the Syrians made a similar attack in August of 2013 and then President Obama declared that the Syrians had crossed a “red line” and would pay the consequences. When our British allies refused to participate and the Congress got cold feet on whether to support such action or not, President Obama decided against military action. In a blog at the time I decried the lack of action and moral fortitude of not only our country, but of the entire civilized world for taking no action. I also predicted that it would eventually come back to haunt us.
It looks like the same thing will happen this time around. Loud denunciations, Security Council resolutions and much wringing of hands around the world as the order of the day, but in the end, no action taken. President Trump, apparently forgetting that he is now the president and responsible for U.S. foreign policy, condemned the attack and then blamed President Obama for it taking place. This is the entire statement as posted on the official White House website.
Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.
How ironic that President Trump condemns his predecessor for doing nothing and then does nothing himself. Actually, that’s not too surprising given his comments in 2013. He posted the following statement then.
President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your “powder” for another (and more important) day! — Twitter from @realdonaldtrump on 7 September 2013.
Note that was while President Obama was deciding how to respond to the Syrians for a chemical attack.
Also note that the most recent attack came five days after the Trump administration through U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that they would no longer focus on Syria or the regime of Bashar al-Assad. More precisely, Ambassador Haley said, “We can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way the previous administration maybe did. Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No.” Secretary Tillerson followed up later by saying, “I think the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” The same Syrian people gassed, I suppose. Make no mistake, in the way of foreign policy, and particularly in the Middle East, when the United States says that in essence, they are no longer concerned about Syria, that is a green light to the ruthless regime to do whatever they feel like doing without fear of retribution. Not surprisingly, the Russians who in the deal made in 2013 were to guarantee no Syrian chemical agents would remain in the country, claim that the chemicals came from a “rebel workshop” bombed by Syrian aircraft.
Sorely missing from President Trump’s statement and those of his administration is any indication of actions in response. It seems that in foreign policy, as in his domestic policy thus far, whenever something happens our new president can only lash out at others to assign blame. That is a pretty weak foreign policy position and it will be duly and clearly noted by our friends and enemies around the world.
We see a similarly troubling scenario unfolding with North Korea, and they surely noted our lack of action in Syria. The North Koreans are quickly moving towards a capability to hit the United States with long-range missiles and will in a few years have the ability to mount nuclear weapons on those missiles. As I write this the North Koreans have the capability to reach approximately 300,000 Americans in South Korea, Japan and on bases in the Pacific area. The ruthless North Korean dictator Kim Jon Un is not suicidal or crazy as some have described him. He is, however, isolated, unskilled in foreign affairs and threatened. Reportedly, he refers to the fate of Saddam Hussein repeatedly (hanged, you may remember) and vows not to go down without a fight. The key question is whether or not he will respond to a perceived provocation or start one of his own. It is an extremely dangerous situation that can lead to miscalculations on both sides of the border.
One key element of deterrence is that the people you want to deter from an act must know what is that they are not supposed to do and understand the consequences of doing it anyway. One’s intentions need to be clear, and the punishment beyond the pale in terms of an actor’s cost-benefit calculations. A corollary is to never threaten something that you are not ready or willing to do. This is why it is troubling that President Trump said in a recent interview that, “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.” When asked if he thought the U.S. could solve the North Korean problem, and if so, how, he added, “I don’t have to say any more. Totally.”
I agree with Secretary Tillerson, speaking for the Trump administration, that the last 20 years of U.S. efforts to bring North Korea under control have failed. I agree that all options must remain on the table. I also agree that China is the key to solving the problem. However, it is not possible to solve the problem without China, and for the president to suggest that it can be done without Chinese involvement is a statement without knowledge behind it or a bluff, both dangerous in the current situation.
Further confusing the issue is Secretary Tillerson’s statement today, following yet another North Korean missile test. He said, in a twenty-three word statement,
North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.
No one knows what that means. Of course one could take it at face value, but it is, shall we say, exceedingly rare for the Secretary of State of the United States of America to refuse to comment on a situation that directly threatens the well-being of the nation and its friends and allies.
In total, it is all very strange.
President Trump meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping starting tomorrow at Mar-a-Lago (and once again charging the American taxpayer for the use of his own resort — yet another topic of discussion in this space in the future). North Korea will be a major topic of discussion, to be sure. Unclear, however, is the path the negotiations will follow. In the interview in the Financial Times referenced above, President Trump indicated that “trade deals” will lead to further cooperation on North Korea. How that will play out is hazy. Chinese concerns over North Korea are tempered by the fact that they do not want to be left holding the bag economically should North Korea collapse, and they most definitely do not want U.S. troops on their border should war break out and the Americans sweep through North Korea. There are many problems to be solved on both sides of the negotiating table.
These are matters of great concern to the world, but with a direct impact on our own well-being. They will take a delicate and knowledgeable effort to resolve and probably cannot be accomplished in one meeting. We will soon learn whether or not President Trump is up for the task at hand. To me, the signs are that he is not.
These are troubling times, with seemingly a crisis a day of the administration’s own creation. And yet, the Trump Administration has not been tested in the crucible of national security. In the coming days and weeks, we will see whether or not our president has “the right stuff.”
Russian military involvement in Syria creates increased uncertainty in an already very uncertain region of the world. Analysts are divided as to whether Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send military forces to Syria is a show of strength or a show of weakness and desperation. Either way, their involvement dramatically changes the situation. Allegedly, the Russians joined the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, but also known as ISIL and DAESH depending on who is speaking — they are all the same organization). In reality they are attacking all anti-Bashar Al-Assad (the ruling dictator in Syria) forces, including those trained and supported by the United States and our allies in the region.
As is usually the case with President Putin in particular and other dictators more generally, he told the world exactly what he was going to do. In a revealing “60 Minutes” interview on 27 September before the Russians acted in Syria he said,
“We support the legitimate government of Syria. And it’s my deep belief that any actions to the contrary in order to destroy the legitimate government will create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region or in other regions, for instance in Libya where all the state institutions are disintegrated. We see a similar situation in Iraq. And there is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism.”
In other words, any group fighting the current regime is working to destroy the current dictatorship and therefore they are all terrorists. To him there is no difference between ISIS and the other groups trying to depose the current dictator. Or as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a later interview, “You know, if it walks like a duck, it looks like a duck, it’s a duck” in response to a question about defending the current Syrian regime against all-comers — to the Russians they are all terrorists.
As part of their ongoing air operations in Syria, on Wednesday last week the Russians fired approximately twenty-six cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea into Syrian territory. There was no tactical or operational reason to use cruise missiles in the way they were used in this instance. Like much of what Russia is doing in the region, the real purpose of the launch was to appear to be a world power on the same level as the United States. “If the US can do it, so can we” — a demonstration of technical ability — seemed to be the only reason for it. (Incidentally, intelligence reports indicate that four to six of them crashed in Iran. Mishaps are not unheard of in using cruise missiles as they are not foolproof, but it clearly was not the “flawless” attack initially claimed by Russian propaganda.)
As a footnote it is interesting to see the Russians using the same social media and press releases of ships firing missiles, video of bombs hitting targets, etc. that the United States has employed for many years. I’m not sure if that is a matter of such measures being the best way to disseminate information or if it is a case of plagiarism as the sincerest form of flattery. Regardless, the Russians are trying to demonstrate that they are every bit as capable as the United States. A questionable claim when one digs through the superficial aspects of what they are doing and we really look at their capabilities and sustainability. But for now, all they have to do is look like they know what they are doing.
Where does all of this leave us? Certain facts on the ground remain unchanged. Bashar Al-Assad is still only hanging on to a small amount of territory under his absolute control, his forces are still indiscriminately using “barrel bombs” to kill Syrian civilians, refugees are still flowing out of the country, and ISIS still controls large areas of Syria and parts of Iraq.
Likewise, the only Russian base outside of their country is in Syria. The Russians have long had a naval base on the Syrian coast at Tartus having established it in the 1970s. That base is politically and strategically important to the Russians as it provides a resupply and refueling port for the Russian fleet without having to return to Russian territory. That base was increasingly threatened by the Syrian civil war. Additionally, Syria is the only Russian ally in the Middle East and their client was in serious trouble. This is why many analysts say that the current Russian involvement is a sign of weakness rather than strength. They have propped up Bashar’s regime for years and his father’s before him. That regime was about to collapse, possibly taking their only base with it and losing their only ally. In other words, their strategy wasn’t working and the only remaining option was to get involved on the ground. And they are deeply involved — including ground troops. Those troops are currently providing security to the air and naval bases used by the Russians, but the Russian leadership has not ruled out a combat mission for follow-on ground forces.
Meanwhile, Russia claims that it is fighting ISIS and is only doing what the United States and other nations are doing in Iraq and Syria. The difference is that the Russians lump ISIS in with every other anti-regime force at work. So far, little to none of their military effort is focused on ISIS. If one were generous, one could say that they are fighting terrorism. A realist knows that they are trying to use our own policies and words against us to prop up a brutal dictator.
The situation is further complicated by several Russian aircraft allegedly straying into Turkish air space (“allegedly” because the Russians claim it was accidental but others, including the Turks, doubt it. Turkey is a NATO ally — and of course NATO was originally formed to protect its members from an attack by the Soviet Union — Russia). Unconfirmed reports circulated yesterday that Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft — a report that is probably exaggerated or misinformation — but that highlights the potential for significant expansion of the conflict.
The United States policy concerning Syria has been in disarray since August/September of 2013. You may recall that I had a series of pieces that I posted then arguing for enforcement of President Obama’s “redline” concerning Syrian use of chemical weapons. The United Kingdom’s Parliament tied the Prime Minister’s hands precluding British involvement which then gave the United States Congress pause. No vote was held, but a resolution to authorize the use of American force against the Bashar regime would most likely have failed. President Obama subsequently took no action. I warned at the time that the lack of a forceful response would create larger problems later down the line. That time is now.
In my view, President Putin put Russian forces into combat in Syria for several reasons.
- The Syrian regime was collapsing and Putin could not afford to have his only ally in the Middle East go under.
- The Russians need the base at Tartus for strategic reasons and for prestige reasons. It too was threatened should the regime collapse.
- Russia wants a seat at the table and the ability to broker a deal if and when a political solution is reached to end the civil war in Syria.
- The Russian economy is doing very poorly. The sanctions imposed after Russian adventures in Ukraine are having an impact, especially when coupled with the current low price of oil. When all else fails, dictators time after time become militarily adventurous outside their borders to distract the domestic population from their problems.
- Putin says the biggest disaster in world history was the demise of the Soviet Union. He has always had visions of restoring the empire and what he views as Russia’s rightful place in the world. Showing an ability to project military power away from the homeland “just like the United States” gives him prestige at home and perhaps, in some foreign capitals.
All of these indicators show an attempt to cover up fundamental Russian weakness. We can only see what develops over time, but it is unlikely that Russia can sustain their military operations over the long-term.
Meanwhile in the near-term Russian involvement seriously complicates the situation. The United States is now “re-evaluating” its options, while continuing to provide air support in operations against ISIS. The Russians claim that there are only two options — support ISIS, or support those fighting ISIS (Bashar Al-Assad). This is of course a false equivalency but it is a simple statement for a complex situation. Beyond operations against ISIS, it is hard to know what the United States should do. There are many, many factions now operating in Syria making it difficult to know which are the “good” guys and which are the “bad” guys. Clearly the president, and I think with the support of the American people and many in Congress, does not want the United States involved in another land war in the Middle East. Although the full military might of the United States could defeat ISIS on the ground, it would take a massive commitment in lives and treasure and in the end we would again be occupiers in a land where we are not welcome. Not a good long-term proposition for us as a nation.
Increasingly I think that an interim solution to ease the refugee crisis, show our resolve to our allies and to put Russia on notice that we will not tolerate their interference would be to create “safe zones” in Syria and Iraq along the border with Turkey. This is nearly within our current military level of effort, especially if it is coupled with our allies supplying the troops for security (such as from Turkey), the financing and moral support (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states) while the United States supplies the expertise (advisers), intelligence, and air support. Such a course creates the possibility of further expansion of the conflict and our involvement in it. However, the status quo is unacceptable and is not resolving the problem. Without question Syria and other areas of the Middle East are a real mess, but we can no longer hope that the situation will resolve itself.
When I was working in the Pentagon as the Chief of Staff to a high-ranking political appointee in the Clinton Administration, I was exposed to a lot of decisions that had a lasting impact on real people’s lives. I came to understand that despite what some may opine, those officials do understand the importance of their decisions and do not take them lightly. As the change-over from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration occurred, I asked my boss what his biggest regret might be. Without hesitation, he said “Rwanda.” I have heard similar regrets expressed about Rwanda privately and in public interviews from other Clinton era officials and from the president.
As you may remember, in the spring and early summer of 1994 an estimated 700,000 Rwandans were murdered (some estimates place the number of Rwandans killed as over a million). In simple terms it was a genocidal slaughter of members of the Tutsi tribe (the minority tribe in Rwanda) by the majority Hutu tribe which also controlled the government and the majority of military and police forces. Ordinary Hutu civilians were recruited to help with the slaughter and often neighbors turned on neighbors. It was horrific. Unfortunately, this is not so uncommon in the history of mankind around the world. What made this the one international incident that the officials involved wish they could do over again was the fact that the international community did nothing to stop the killing. After all, it was an unimportant African nation that had no impact on US national interests and it was “a local conflict.”
In my view our current administration will look back on Syria and have the same regrets that those in our government in 1994 have about Rwanda. By most credible reports, over 100,000 Syrian civilians have been systematically killed and an estimated 2 million more have fled their country as refugees to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. Those countries are struggling with the economic and security implications of such a massive influx of people. This is a major crisis after nearly three years of civil war. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is systematically killing off those civilians still in contested cities and areas of the country through starvation and the calculated use of indiscriminate “barrel bombs” (essentially 55 gallon drums filled with explosives, gasoline and shrapnel pushed out the back of helicopters and that can level homes and make buildings uninhabitable — a very inexpensive but very efficient way of instilling fear and killing people.)
Bashar is supported by the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah and there is very little will in the rest of the world to put an end to the civil war. Meanwhile the killing continues unabated.
After two ground wars in the Muslim world, there is very little to no interest for the United States to get involved militarily. We proved our disinterest last fall when Bashar used chemical weapons against his own citizens. If the United States is not interested, then much of the rest of the world is also going to stand-off rather than get involved. There have been some efforts, funneled primarily through Saudi and Qatari sources, to get small arms and some humanitarian relief to the forces opposing Bashar and the trapped civilians, respectively.
Oh, and let’s not forget last September’s negotiated settlement to remove chemical weapons from Syria in lieu of bombing that country. After a surprisingly effective start, very little of the chemical stockpile has been removed or destroyed and the disarmament is well behind schedule. At the same time, Bashar has discovered that he does not need chemical weapons to kill thousands of his countrymen — starvation and barrel bombs work just fine without incurring the wrath (in the form of military strikes) of the rest of the world.
To me, this is not merely a civil war (“a local conflict”) that has no impact on US national interests. In addition to the humanitarian aspects of the crisis — which is an important principle of American international relations — there are important economic and security issues at stake. The major influx of refugees is having a destabilizing impact on the adjacent nations, especially Lebanon (already in a very precarious state) and Jordan (a long time source of stability in the area and a friend of the United States). As in Iraq and Afghanistan, future terrorists are getting on-the-job-training in the heat of combat. Areas of several nations are not under government control and as we found in Afghanistan, this leads to what amounts to safe havens for ne’er-do-well types that have very bad intentions towards the United States. Additionally, it leaves Israel in a precarious position as other bad actors have a base to threaten their security. The list goes on, but the point is that the fallout from Syria’s civil war could have a profound long-term impact on important American national security interests. Yet, we are doing very little to end it. Recent talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and opposition leaders sponsored by the United States and other western nations went nowhere. Worse than nowhere because now the participants see no reason to negotiate — if ever negotiations were actually possible.
So the question is what should the United States do about this situation? To use a long-standing diplomatic phrase, “I don’t know.” The majority of Americans and the Congress clearly demonstrated last fall that they have no desire to get involved militarily. At. All. (There may be some point in the future where we may find that we have no choice but to get involved due to the course of events.) For now, no way, no how, is there the will to get the United States military involved — even to stop the helicopters from dropping the barrel bombs through a no-fly zone, as was used successfully in other conflicts such as Bosnia, Iraq, and Libya.
I have no magic wand to get our government or the international community involved to stop the systematic elimination of thousands of lives. Ideas that have been put forward include giving the opposition forces more money, food and much better and more powerful weapons than they’ve been supplied thus far. Although used in fits and starts, this course of action has been slow and sporadic because not all of the groups opposing Bashar are friendly to the United States and several of those groups are openly hostile to the west. Some are militant fundamentalist Islamist groups. Since we are concerned about where the money and weapons may end up, too little is flowing from the west to the resistance . However, many reports indicate that the best equipped and most wealthy (relatively speaking) fighters are the Islamist groups. They are getting what they need and as a result, fighters not normally inclined to join those groups do so in order to be more effective. The US and Europe identified opposition leaders and groups that are at least friendly towards the United States. We should do all that we can to supply them with the equipment and money required to exceed that of the Islamist forces and thereby give them the most effective fighters and the most influential political leadership. We need to take the chance that 100% of it will not stay out of the hands of those we do not want to get it.
To understand why I think we should take that chance it is important to remember that Syria — with a population that practices Islam — is not an Islamist state. Before the civil war it was a modern secular nation with knowledgeable technocrats able to keep a modern society going. Most Syrians, while practicing Muslims, do not want a fundamentalist Islamic state. While opposing Bashar, alliances will form that may be uncomfortable for us. In the end, it is possible, even probable, that the majority of the properly equipped and funded new leadership and their followers will continue to want Syria to be the secular state it has been since independence from France following World War II.
They may never be our “friend,” but now is the chance to influence future leaders and future events. With no participation we have no chance of influencing anything.
Efforts to aid civilians trapped in cities and areas of conflict are more difficult. A strong United Nations effort could break this log jam, especially if the United States and the European Union put a full effort into creating the means to do so. Some small progress was made earlier this year when the UN did get into a few areas to evacuate civilians. During the evacuation several of the groups came under hostile fire and the effort was suspended indefinitely. The dilemma is to find a way to provide for the security of UN missions to aid the civilian population without creating the need for a large military force to protect them. Of course, most UN efforts to get involved in Syria have been thwarted by Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power over any resolution that they deem to be a threat to their interests in the area and specifically anything that limits Bashar’s regime in Syria.
There are a lot of smart people in this country and in this world — a lot smarter than me. Many of them also have an impact on government decisions and are privy to intelligence and covert efforts that may be ongoing that I do not know anything about. I hope so, and I hope that the efforts are effective, but I see no evidence of it to date.
I do know this. Syria was not a backward country with a bunch of nomads living in tents in the desert. It was a modern nation with modern citizens most of whom were educated and aware. It is now a killing field. Without effective action, Syria will be this decade’s Rwandan humanitarian disaster and it will be a continuing threat to our long-term national security interests.