The United States is in danger of descending into the Syrian quagmire. There are clear signs of mission creep devoid of logic or strategic rationale. It is not too late yet to step away from the brink. This would require swift action by President Donald Trump to rein in the war party before it takes America into yet another unwinnable and costly Middle Eastern war. And yet the President is said to have displayed relative indifference to the subject of Syria as the crisis escalated, focusing his attention instead on various domestic issues.
On June 27, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley tweeted that “[a]ny further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia & Iran who support him killing his own people.” A day earlier the White House issued an ominous warning to Syria’s president against launching another chemical assault (“A heavy price will be paid”), and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson presented a similar message to Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.
Such statements provide direct inducement to terrorists to stage false-flag attacks which would be used to invite large-scale U.S. intervention. For example, over 80 people died in a suspected chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun last April 4. The U.S. immediately blamed the incident on government forces, with no proof, and used it as pretext to launch the missile strike on the morning of 7 April against the Shayrat Airbase controlled by the Syrian government. This was the first unilateral military action by the United States targeting Syrian government forces since the civil war started in 2011. President Trump declared shortly thereafter that it is “in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”
Cui bono? The Syrian government has no motive to use chemical weapons against civilians. It is winning the war, contrary to most expectations. The jihadist opposition, by contrast, is desperate for America to come to its rescue. Early prospects looked bright after former President Barack Obama recklessly drew a “red line” in 2012. He declared that he would intervene if “we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” The predictable result was a massive sarin nerve gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August 2013. As Seymour Hersh and others have subsequently established on the basis of documents obtained from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Nusra Front—the Syrian affiliate of al Qaeda—had access to the nerve agent and carried out the attack.
To his credit Obama refrained from ordering an all-out attack on Assad’s forces. His then-Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, was able to dissuade the President—according to a recently published book by the German Middle East expert Michael Lüders—after a British military laboratory established that the gas traces found at Ghouta were of a different chemical composition to the type Syrian army had. Furthermore, the attack took place while UN weapons inspectors were in Syria, on Assad’s invitation. He is an energetic, even ruthless man, but he is not stupid or insane.
The Ghouta crisis was a close-run thing. It is disheartening to see that a similar scenario is being used to induce American intervention against Bashar almost four years later, when his military and political position is far stronger, when Russia’s support for his government is rock-solid, and after Trump’s campaign rhetoric prudently warned against such intervention. The President would be well advised to listen to the voices of reason on the Hill, including Sen. Tim Kaine, who condemned Trump’s attacks on Syrian government forces as “unconstitutional” and a “completely unlawful use of power”; and Sen. Rand Paul, who called the attacks an “illegal war at this point.”
More significantly, three-term Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a member of both the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, has proposed legislation that would prohibit any U.S. assistance to terrorist organizations in Syria, to groups working directly with them, or to countries that provide arms or money to those terrorists and their collaborators. Had Gabbard’s “Stop Arming Terrorists Act” been on the statute books five years ago, Obama would not have been able to help his Gulf “allies” who nurtured the Islamic State and the fictitious “moderates” whose CIA-supplied weapons and equipment went straight to hard-core jihadists.
As Gareth Porter noted in a detailed expose in The American Conservative last week, by helping its Sunni allies provide weapons to al Nusra Front and its allies and by funneling into the war zone sophisticated weapons that were bound to fall into al-Nusra hands, U.S. policy has been responsible for having extended al Qaeda’s power across a significant part of Syrian territory:
The CIA and the Pentagon appear to be ready to tolerate such a betrayal of America’s stated counter-terrorism mission. Unless either Congress or the White House confronts that betrayal explicitly, as Tulsi Gabbard’s legislation would force them to do, U.S. policy will continue to be complicit in the consolidation of power by al Qaeda in Syria, even if the Islamic State is defeated there.
U.S. policy in Syria has been incoherent for years. It is currently becoming reckless. The Trump administration has sharply increased U.S. bombing raids. It is estimated that U.S.-led coalition strikes had killed almost 500 civilians in the past month alone—many more than have been allegedly killed in the regime nerve gas raids. And, absurdly, the quest for “moderate rebels” still continues. As Trump tweeted about Obama’s Syria policy in 2013: "Be prepared, there is a small chance that our horrendous leadership could unknowingly lead us into World War III."
On Syria the Administration needs to pause and take a long breath. Carefully weighing costs and benefits of intervention in a far-away land where no vital U.S. interest is at stake—especially in a volatile majority-Muslim country with a complex ethno-religious chessboard—is a must. In line with Trump’s preelection assessments, America should be kept away from yet another Middle Eastern quagmire. False flag operations must not be allowed to change the equation. If there is an intervention—even if it falls short of troops on the ground—it will commit the U.S. to a rebel recovery that would be contrary to the American interest. It would effectively place the future of the U.S. policy in Syria into the hands of groups dominated by the Jihadist International. They would not be able to win, but they would not be allowed to be defeated either, lest the U.S. “reputation,” “commitment,” and “credibility” are jeopardized. This scenario opens the prospect of all the complications against which candidate Trump warned only a year ago.
As if the Afghan blowback of the 1980s had never happened, as if the Iraqi debacle were ancient history, the Administration is getting closer to involvement in yet another multi-faceted Middle Eastern conflict without good or bad parties, a civil war irrelevant to the welfare or security of the U.S. regardless of its outcome. The result can only be a minus-sum-game for America. If Bashar survives, the American prestige will suffer; but if the rebels prevail, Syria will become safe for jihad.
There is no coherent U.S. strategy on Syria. It is based either on wishful thinking or on pig-headed mendacity. Bashar is not going anywhere, regardless of U.S. intervention. There is a large number of Syrians who loath the rebels, including not only all Allawites and Christians, and most Druze and Kurds, but also many moderate and secular Sunnis. They provide Bashar with the critical mass of recruits to fight and survive. Those people know all too well what their destiny would be under a “moderate rebel” regime.
Writing here four years ago I asserted that in Syria no American interest is at stake, and therefore no American involvement is justified: “Foreign intervention becomes inexcusable if its likely outcome is worse than the status quo. In Syria the only likely alternative to Bashar is a nosedive into terrorist mayhem. Such outcome would be far worse from the vantage point of U.S. interests, geopolitically as well as morally, than what we now have in Damascus.” That verdict still stands.