What To Do In Syria

There are no good options left in Syria. The recent chemical attack in Douma and the response by the United States, United Kingdom, and France to that attack highlighted this point. The attack by the three Western powers raised many questions. In the United States, we are rightly debating the legality of the use of force in Syria without congressional approval. We are also debating the goals of such action, both what they are and what they should be.

The fact is, just like its attack last year, the United States has no real goal in this latest adventure. The strikes did not remove Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities. Indeed, the sites had been evacuated in advance of the strikes, even though, according to the Trump administration, there had been no coordination with Russia beforehand. No one knows what equipment or stockpiles might also have been moved, but the United States itself has admitted that Assad still has chemical capabilities.

The U.S. action generated more controversy this time, yet it seems very similar to the strike last year. While Trump reveled in positive press coverage at that time, it soon became clear that the 2017 strikes—which were also ostensible responses to a chemical weapons attack—were little more than a show. The new strikes, though larger, seem like more of the same.

Speaking to Al-Jazeera, Ibrahim al-Marashi, an associate professor at the department of history at California State University, said, “The outcome of both [responses] is the same. Both are largely symbolic actions with little consequence on the ground. Both reveal that the U.S. does not have a long-term strategy in Syria.”

Al-Marashi is correct. The US has no strategy, and it’s an open question what a productive strategy would be.

Regime Change

One potential goal is ousting Bashar al-Assad. His crimes are horrifying beyond words. Other than cynical political interests in Moscow and Tehran, there is no conceivable rationale for wanting him to stay in power.

But the simple fact is, Assad has won the war. The fighting may not have ended, and Syria is not going to be whole again for the foreseeable future, but Assad’s position is strong, he is backed by Russia, and his control of a large part of the country is established.

It is possible still to dislodge Assad militarily, but only with a direct assault on his rule, requiring far more Western participation than we’ve seen before. That carries with it the risk of a major escalation with Iran and Russia, and it’s clearly a risk the United States and Europe are not willing to take, with good reason.

Moreover, as noble a goal as it is to get so brazen a war criminal as Assad out of power, doing so by force would mean renewing the war in Syria and doubling down on the human toll it has already taken. That will be the case even if it does not lead to wider conflict between the West and Russia. Assad has certainly proven he will do whatever he deems necessary, no matter how horrifying, to maintain his rule.

We must acknowledge that, short of a major escalation, there is no military path to ousting Assad. We know as well that diplomacy is a difficult road. There were real opportunities earlier in this conflict, first to support the Syrian masses who were rising up in 2011 and were being gunned down; and, later, after many outside groups had established their own roles in the burgeoning conflict, there was a chance to find a diplomatic solution if world powers were willing to prioritize the best interests of the Syrian people and find a compromise.

But the Obama administration was uneasy about any resolution that left any part of the Assad regime in power. Russia was going to ensure that its one toehold in the Middle East, Syria, remained in their sphere of influence at all costs. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and various non-state actors all had their own agendas. Lost in that jumble of political, strategic, and ideological goals were the people of Syria.

Given that stability is not likely to come to Syria in the near term, it is imperative that interested parties, especially in Europe and the United Nations, begin to lay the groundwork now for a long term, diplomatic resolution to the Syrian crisis. The goal should be stability that can end the violence and lead eventually to free and fair elections, as well as constitutional reform. Syria, despite the autocratic and despotic nature of the Assad regime, has, in its current constitution, structures that, with reform could form the basis of an open and even free society. That allows for an international effort to promote Syrian freedom, if it is rooted in Syrian democracy.

This is far from ideal. That process will be measured in years, probably many of them. Both Russia and Iran will have to be involved and their interests considered, as uneasy as that might make the U.S. The United States and Europe will have to recognize that, as tempting as it might be to eliminate Iran’s “crescent” in the Levant, which connects it to Lebanon through Syria, and to eliminate the last firm Russian ally in the region, this will only continue to frustrate diplomatic efforts and make compromise impossible. Russia and Iran, for their part, are going to have to accommodate themselves to a future where, if they want good relations with Syria, they will have to cultivate them with a democratic and popular Syrian government, a much more difficult and costly process than cozying up to a dictator.

U.S. Out Of Syria?

A U.S. pullout, as Trump suggested recently, is just as untenable a prospect. Apparently, given Trump’s quick walkback on this point, someone (probably Defense Secretary Jim Mattis) explained this point to him.

Assad may continue to hold the biggest chunk of Syrian territory, but he is unable to rebuild the devastated country he will rule. Even with full control of the country, the Syrian economy could not sustain such a project. Without the relatively resource-rich areas under opposition control, it is completely impossible. Russia, with its own economic problems, may be able to offer advice, military support and some shielding for Assad at the United Nations, but it simply does not have the capacity to rebuild the country.

This fact is the key to moving forward. No matter how defiant Assad is, he will need international help to rebuild Syria. Eventually, that international effort must come with a price; it cannot be provided to Assad, but to the people of Syria, and that means it will be the reward for talks leading to a transitional, compromise government and free and fair elections that Assad must accept. Otherwise, he will rule a permanently crippled, permanently unstable country.

A U.S. pullout from Syria must be the leverage used to press Assad in this direction—leverage Trump nearly threw away. But the prospect of an imminent US withdrawal presents other dangers.

It is not hard to imagine what would happen if the United States leaves the area. Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, will renew attempts to regain, probably incrementally, the territory anti-government forces aligned with the United States now hold. That means a renewal of the conflict.

But there are graver risks. Turkey would be very likely to strike at the Kurds in Syria, something the U.S. presence currently deters, to a great, though not full, degree. The last thing Syria needs is incentive for other countries to further pursue their own military goals in the country.

And if Turkish incursions are worrisome, how much more are increased Israeli strikes?

Israel has been watching developments in Syria with increasing apprehension. That concern grew considerably when the Trump administration agreed with Russia to permit an Iranian presence, under Russian supervision, in the cease-fire zone in southern Syria last year. The growing Israeli apprehension is reflected in the steadily increasing incidents of Israeli strikes in Syria, strikes which already threaten to escalate into direct conflict with Iran.

Had Barack Obama agreed to an Iranian presence in Syria so close to Israel, the so-called “pro-Israel” crowd would have said he is trying to destroy the Jewish state. Yet, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to embrace Trump, this decision was not to his or any other Israeli leader’s liking. If the U.S. now pulls out of Syria completely, there can be no doubt that Israel will take much more robust steps to counter the Iranian presence. Unintended consequences could even lead to an all-out war between Israel and Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran.

Withdrawal is not an option. The only productive way forward in Syria is through diplomacy, something the Trump administration is both loathe to pursue and ill-prepared to attempt, given the ongoing lack of diplomatic capacity in the State Department and the White House.

Nevertheless, those who wish to see a post-war Syria that is rebuilt and leaving behind the despotism of the Assad regime must press for a realistic, long-term solution. That will mean a process like the various attempts at internationally brokered talks of the past. But for talks to succeed, or even make any progress, they must be approached differently. Russia must be pressed toward willingness to see a post-Assad Syria, but also reassured that their interests will be taken seriously and dealt with in negotiations. Without this, they will have no reason to press the Syrian government to talk.

The goal of the Western countries needs to be a democratic Syria in the true sense, not one that is defined by its allegiance to the U.S. Iraq serves as a cautionary tale here, just as Libya does for an attempt to topple Assad by force.

This approach is not going to be taken by the Trump administration, that is certain. But at least for now, Trump has made it clear that he does not intend to risk escalation, and it seems unlikely that this will change in the near term (with the ever-present caveat that we do not deal in certainty when our foreign policy depends on a combination of Trump’s moods and the daily commentary on Fox and Friends). This is a long term struggle, and if there is to be a useful forum where the will of the Syrian people can assert itself, the international community must begin to build the strategy and the incentives and disincentives to create it, starting now.

What We Can Learn from Spicer’s Gaffes

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has a difficult job. Turning Donald Trump’s messages into comprehensible, even respectable, public statements is a tough go. But even taking that into account, his performance has been terrible, and on Tuesday, he hit a new low.

Spicer kicked his day off by stating that “Hitler didn’t sink to using chemical weapons.” Yes, you read that right. Hitler never employed chemical agents to kill helpless civilians.

But gaffes happen. One reporter gave Spicer a chance, asking him to clarify the remark. Spicer thanked her for the opportunity…and proceeded to make the matter even worse. Here’s how he explained himself:

I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no — he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Ashad (sic) is doing. I mean, there was clearly, I understand your point, thank you. Thank you, I appreciate that. There was not in the, he brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that. What I am saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent, into the middle of towns, it was brought — so the use of it. And I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent.

Recognizing that his explanation only dug him in deeper, Spicer released a statement saying, “In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable.”

There’s a lot here, beyond the obvious point that Sean Spicer is yet another Trump administration official who is clearly unqualified for his job. Some of it relates to the Trump administration, but some reflects broader issues we really should consider.

  1. The offense for which Spicer was rightly pilloried and eventually apologized was certainly heinous. Whether he just didn’t know that Jews were gassed by Zyklon-B, believes it didn’t happen, or simply forgot because he was only considering the battlefields doesn’t matter.
  2. That said, the invocation of Hitler and the Holocaust to justify action is tired and has become offensive in and of itself. It is usually deployed cynically, to justify a strategic decision (often a very questionable one) by casting it as a defense of innocents. That’s what we said we were doing in Iraq, Vietnam, Grenada, and other places. If military use is strategically warranted, that is a case that should be able to stand on its own. But the firing of missiles and dropping of bombs is rarely done to protect or rescue innocents. When such is necessary, it’s usually an ineffective way to pursue that goal.
  3. Spicer tripped himself up in his first attempt to explain away his horrific statement because he saw (admittedly, without thinking it through) some sort of difference between gassing people in a town and gathering them into a chamber to gas them.

But there is one point that cries out to be made here, and that is being buried under Spicer’s gaffe. The hysteria over chemical weapons seems to have completely obscured the horrors that are routinely spread by conventional weapons.

The effects of concussive and explosive bombs, mortars, grenades, and sweeps of bullets are much greater than those of chemical weapons, simply because they are used much more often. But in many minds, those weapons cause a “cleaner” death. The images that are associated with chemical weapons seem of people, especially children, foaming at the mouth, struggling for breath, or writhing in agony from inhaled poison so much more horrifying.

But perhaps that is because we don’t sufficiently consider the agony of hot shrapnel ripping into flesh and lodging in an organ. Or the pain of being crushed under collapsed rubble, or the shattering of bones from concussive explosions.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that some 465,000 people have been killed in the last six years in Syria. Of that total, chemical weapons have been killed some 1,500. The latter deserves our attention, but the former is where the majority of our outrage should be focused.

It’s also worth considering the classification of “chemical weapons.” We tend to think of particular gas weapons under that category. We think of nerve gases, mustard gases, various choking gases, and other lethal vapors.

But what is the difference between these substances and napalm? Most Western countries have used that deadly substance extensively. The death and maiming it brings is torturous, from all accounts. More recently, white phosphorous weapons, which have similar effects, have come into vogue. The United States used it in Iraq, as Saddam Hussein once used it against Iran. Israel controversially used white phosphorous in Gaza, Saudi Arabia uses it in Yemen, the Taliban used it against US forces in Afghanistan, Russia was alleged to have used it in Chechnya, and there are many other examples.

Neither napalm nor white phosphorous is illegal under chemical weapons conventions. But the difference between them and banned weapons is not obvious at all.

The attention to chemical weapons certainly does have its place. Chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons are all particularly devastating and, crucially, very difficult to confine to only “legitimate” targets. It makes sense that special attention is paid to them, but we need to guard against focusing on them to such an extent that we forget that legal, conventional weaponry kills the vast majority of innocents.

In the film The Lion in Winter, a young Anthony Hopkins, playing Richard the Lionheart, said “I never heard a corpse ask how it got so cold.” In the end, it is bloody, ongoing conflicts, not merely the use of certain weapons in them, that must be stopped or at least stemmed. International law and the United Nations charter provide ways to do that. It’s time we paid attention to fixing the politics that prevents them from doing so.

Israel and Russia: A Crisis Brews for Trump

On March 16, Israeli planes struck several targets in Syria. Israel said that it had targeted shipments of “advanced weapons” meant for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

These strikes occur from time to time, and there is usually little but fist-waving and statements from Syria in response. This time was different. Assad’s forces launched several missiles at the Israeli jets, none of which found their mark. More importantly, the next day, the new Israeli Ambassador to Russia was summoned by the Russian government for clarification of the incident.

This is significant beyond just the current state of affairs. As Michael Koplow aptly describes over at his blog, this incident is a symptom of an underlying clash of policy between Israel and Russia and there are likely to be more incidents of this nature in the future.

One thing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proven to be adept at is balancing Israel on a thin line with other countries. Israel’s relationship with Russia is a good one, and has proven to be generally useful for both sides, but there are built-in tensions and disagreements. One of the biggest of these is their respective attitudes toward Iran, and this difference is bound to play out amidst Russia’s partnership with Iran and the Islamic Republic’s allies, Assad and Hezbollah.

As Koplow puts it, “No matter how good the coordination mechanism between the two sides, the fundamental conflict at the heart of Israeli-Russian views on Syria is that Israel’s redline is the establishment of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria and Russia’s redline is the elimination of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria.”

Yet it is precisely that tension that makes it imperative that Russia and Israel coordinate closely. Israel is willing to let the Syrian conflict play out for now, but they will not allow Hezbollah free rein to upgrade their armaments. Russia, for its part, will not help Israel in this endeavor, but they are willing to turn a blind eye when Israel acts on intelligence it mines, so long as the strikes are limited to the specific convoys.

That uneasy agreement is strained now. Israel is convinced, with good reason, that Iran intends to establish a permanent presence in Syria. That was why Netanyahu broached the subject of the United States recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights last month during his meeting with Donald Trump in Washington.

For Israel, a permanent Iranian role in Syria changes the parameters of the game. They will see this as Iran expanding its presence on Israel’s borders from Southern Lebanon (through Hezbollah) well into Syria. But for Russia, nothing has changed. Vladimir Putin is, as he has always been, intent on maintaining Russia’s regional foothold in Syria. For that, he probably needs Assad and certainly needs Iran.

As analyst Geoffrey Aronson points out, “If until now Putin has been able to contain the contradictions of a policy that accommodates Israel as well as its enemies, in the next phase of the battle this balancing act may not be so easy.”

From both Russia’s and Iran’s points of view, keeping Assad in some degree of power in Syria after the war ends is vital. Israel would probably be willing to see a weakened Assad remain, but not if a permanent Iranian presence is what is needed to prop him up. This creates a brittle situation that would test any leader.

The biggest unknown factor has now become the United States. Part of the Obama Administration’s strategy in its dealing with Iran on the issue of Iranian nuclear capabilities was to open a channel of communication with Tehran. Obama and John Kerry succeeded at that, but the Trump Administration has slammed that door, with the eager help of Congress.

For Trump, Syria is all about the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). He has been quietly escalating US involvement in Syria in a number of places, as Senator Chris Murphy detailed over the weekend. There seems to be no overarching goal to Trump’s actions in Syria other than the pursuits of the moment. That has unpleasant echoes of our early involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Murphy explains. But there may be other complications.

Helping in the fight against ISIS puts US forces squarely alongside those of Russia, Syria, and Iran. That’s consistent with some early statements from Trump about his desire to work with Russia in Syria. If Trump is sincere in his desire to improve relations with Russia—or, on the other hand, if he is as deeply in bed with Putin as many of his detractors believe—this could be a functional strategy. As much as people in the United States despise Assad and Iran, they are more afraid of ISIS than of anyone else. He can survive that politically.

But what happens when this fundamental policy disagreement between Russia and Israel comes to the fore? Given Trump’s early performance in office, it is hard to imagine that he has thought this issue through to that extent. Still, his UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley, launched an early volley on this front, saying, “This is very much about a political solution now … and that basically means that Syria can no longer be a safe haven for terrorists. We’ve got to make sure we get Iran and their proxies out. We’ve got to make sure that, as we move forward, we’re securing the borders for our allies as well.”

This will be an issue on which Israel must get clarity. Netanyahu is thus far surviving the worst political storms of his tenure in office, but he will not risk having to defend himself against charges that he allowed Iran to establish a permanent foothold on Israel’s very doorstep. Right now, he has no commitment at this stage from the Trump Administration that it would be willing to oppose Russian efforts to keep an Iranian presence in Syria, or, if it would oppose such a presence, how far it would be willing to go to block it.

The seeds for this problem are not only there, they are already growing. The Israel-Russia relationship remains intact, but the summoning of the Israeli ambassador by Russia suggests that tensions are growing. The United States will not be able to stay out of this, even if Trump weren’t deepening our involvement in Syria.

Worse, Trump’s own ambiguity and opaqueness about his policy regarding Israel and where the U.S. stands on the regional issues that surround the Jewish State only adds to the instability.  Netanyahu cannot be sure how far Trump has his back in dealing with Putin. That, in turn, could lead to Netanyahu pushing the decision on Washington through his own actions, a dangerous gamble for everyone concerned.

Trump’s blustering style certainly cannot fill anyone with confidence, not even Netanyahu. Nonetheless, the job is his. There is room to find an accommodation here; Putin does not prioritize Israel’s needs as highly as Washington does, but he still values Israel’s friendship and seems to at least understand Israeli concerns. He will likely be willing to try to find some way for Iran to ensure Assad’s ability to govern at least part of Syria going forward while avoiding a confrontation with Israel.

But the United States will need to help broker this deal and it will be delicate work. Putin might negotiate, but he will not back off his bottom line of maintaining a solid Russian presence in Syria, his primary interest from the start of the upheavals there. Netanyahu, for his part, will need to be convinced that Iranian influence on Israel’s borders is being mitigated by Moscow’s restraint. Trump will need to work to satisfy these competing interests while also working to show he can take on ISIS.

A delicate and difficult task indeed, and neither delicate nor difficult has proven to be Trump’s forte.

Syria For Americans

Both opposition to and support of Barack Obama’s proposal to bomb Syria have been focusing on a chemical weapons attack that killed some 1400 people while pushing to the background a civil war that has killed 100,000. The spiraling situation in Syria and the growing callousness of the discourse around it, in the West and elsewhere is long on what should not be done but tragically bereft of what should be done. I try to change that in my piece this week in Souciant.

Souciant’s New Blog

Many of you who follow me here know that I have been working for several years as writer, Associate Editor and, most recently, Publisher of souciant_icon_normalSouciant, an innovative and groundbreaking online magazine. Today, we launched a new feature, a blog which will feature shorter articles on a  variety of topics, much like the diverse content of Souciant.

My first blog post is up there, Israel’s New Frenemies. In it, I take a look at some of the implications of the shifts taking place in the region and what they mean for Israel. Check it out, and keep following us. Oh, and make sure you tell your friends about Souciant.