The Strike On Syria Was Either Hastily Planned, Or Very Cynically Orchestrated
Neither scenario is comforting, and both will destabilize the region
Thursday’s launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles by the US on Shayrat airbase heralds a dramatic and sudden shift in policy regarding Syria’s civil war. As recently as a week ago, the Trump administration seemed just fine with the thought of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad — the man responsible for the murder, torture, and starvation that has led to 92 percent of civilian deaths in the Syrian war — staying in power. This all changed this week, when a chemical gas attack in Syria’s Idlib province left 85 dead and scores injured, images of which horrified viewers the world over. Trump himself was reported to have been shook by the attack, though apparently not enough to accept refugees fleeing these atrocities.
While rumors of military action in response to the use of chemical weapons had been swirling the last few days, few predicted such a swift and decisive move from Trump, both because of the complexity of the conflict (not least the presence of Russian forces on the ground) and the Trump administration’s own dysfunction so far. This latter point, combined with Trump’s erratic behavior, makes it easy to envision the plan to bomb the Syrian airfield as another half-baked Trump idea (luckily executed by the more competent side of the administration in Defense Secretary General James Mattis and national security advisor H.R. McMaster). Trump may well have intended to seize on the opportunity presented by the chemical attack to brand himself as a strong and decisive leader in the face of atrocity abroad, hoping this will improve his historically dismal ratings, give him increased authority on the international stage, and also rid himself of claims he is colluding with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
If this indeed was the calculus, the attack may be one of Trump’s most short sighted actions in a presidency already full of them. Given the complexity of the war, it is hard to see what objective the strike itself accomplishes. If this is the only action Trump intends to take against Assad, it is not one that will deter the regime much. The US (in another contradiction to Trump’s rhetoric) informed Russia in advance of the strike, which obviously prompted Moscow to make a call to the Syrians immediately. This allowed the Syrian military to mobilize their aircraft, thereby minimizing the damage to their capabilities. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the government is already carrying out airstrikes again, contradicting US military reports of massive damage to the Syrian air force. The strike also didn’t decrease the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stockpiles (a depot reported to house the gas used in the attacks was not bombed). While Assad may be reluctant to launch a chemical weapons attack anytime soon, the losses at the airfield do not appear to be too damaging, and he will probably go back to barrel-bombing his people soon enough.
If instead the strike is the beginning of a continued offensive against the Syrian government, this puts America in an incredibly dangerous quagmire, one that would make the Iraq war seem like the invasion of Granada. For starters, the US has not launched missiles in so close a vicinity to Russian forces since at least the end of the Cold War. Continued offensives in Syria greatly increase the potential for a hostile encounter between American and Russian forces, and a subsequent escalation to war. Russia’s suspension of communication with the Pentagon on Syrian airstrikes amplifies this risk further. This also seemingly nullifies any potential for cooperation between Russia and the West on ending the war in Syria, and thrusts the conflict in an unknown direction. Russia has also called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the attack, but their response may not even be limited to Syria. Putin is a master at retaliating from different angles, as evidenced by his takeover of Crimea in response to Western actions in Libya and Syria.
An offensive against Assad also complicates the fight against ISIS and other extremist groups, essentially putting the US on the same side as the likes of ISIS and al-Qaeda. Any attack of Syrian government forces is necessarily a boon for these groups, and may help them to regain lost ground. It may also jeopardize efforts to defeat ISIS elsewhere, and further destabilize the region. This is especially true in Iraq. Iranian-backed militias there have been fighting back ISIS essentially in tandem with the Iraqi military and American special forces, particularly in the liberation of the city of Mosul. An attack on Assad, a key Iranian ally, may prompt these militias to turn on their de-facto allies, plunging the country back into chaos. Hezbollah, another Iranian-backed group, could also be emboldened to strengthen its position, make inroads into Syria, and perhaps even take advantage of Western distraction to renew its fight with Israel. Kurdish militias and the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army — who have been successful at fighting against ISIS and are closing in on their capital, Raqqa — may also be pinned into fighting a renewed multi-front war against both ISIS and forces loyal to Assad that they were not fighting before. In short, American military presence may further destabilize an already disastrously unstable situation.
Now let’s put on our tin-foil hats for a second…
Given the extensive amount of collusion between Moscow and members of the Trump administration, it’s only slightly nutty to think that they may have collaborated on this attack as well. The Trump administration were quick to spin their tipping off Russia before the attack as them informing, but not consulting with, the Kremlin about the strike. But what if they did?
The more optimistic view of such a scenario is that Russia was just as surprised by the chemical attack as the rest of the world. This would make some sense, given that the chemical attack seemed disadvantageous to Assad’s own position, given that he had crushed many of the rebel strongholds and had about as solid a hold on the country as at any time in the war, thanks to Russian support. Some have speculated that Assad’s decision to conduct the attack stemmed from Trump’s stance against Obama’s “red line” in 2013, as well as the Trump administration's willingness to let him stay in power, though even this would entail a risky move on the part of Assad, given Trump’s unpredictability.
Knowing that the attack would trigger international outrage, Putin may thus have calculated that allowing the American missile strike to go through would be easier to manage than yet another defense of Assad’s actions. If that allayed the accusations of collusion with Trump, so much the better. This assumes, however, that Putin had no knowledge either of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile or that Assad acted without Russian permission, both of which are unlikely. Assad’s survival depends on Russia, and it is doubtful he would do anything to jeopardize that support.
This has led some, such as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews to suggest that the chemical attack and its response were preordained, orchestrated by Putin and Trump in a vicious quid-pro-quo to kill the narrative that they were in cahoots. This would, in theory, also give both free reign to fight the proxy wars they need to boost their standings at home. Trump can have the role of strongman he so craves in fighting against Assad, while Putin can continue to present himself as the defender against Western aggression to his own people. A win-win, except for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians caught in the crossfire. There is as yet no intelligence that proves this latter, and most cynical, scenario. Indeed, the best counter to this theory may be that the diplomatic bumbling observed from the Trump administration so far makes it unlikely they could devise any scheme this complicated. Unless, of course, this too was a ruse! (*cue sinister music*)
In another time, one might be not-so-politely told to see a psychiatrist just for writing such theories. But in a time when fake news-spreading bots, disinformation tactics, Russian election hacking, kompromat, and “little green men” are lingua franca when discussing US-Russian relations, can anything really be discounted as just plain crazy?
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