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.

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.

Israel Unlikely to Stay on Syrian Sidelines for Much Longer

All eyes are on US President Barack Obama as he contemplates how to deal with the fact that the Syrian government might have crossed a red line he never should have drawn. The Israelis, even while abstaining from pressuring Obama to act in Syria, meanwhile know their own decisions are no less troublesome.

Obama dug himself a hole when he declared that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be a casus belli. Now that it appears that Sarin gas was used in Syria (although such use is certainly not as destructive as some of the “conventional” bombardment that has been employed), Obama is in a quandary. There is no more or less of a reason to significantly increase the US’ involvement in Syria than there was before, but the forces that have been calling for intervention have an enormous new chip to play.

This might be comforting to Israel, because they have to be very concerned about what is happening in Syria right now, and that concern is not based on whether or not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used sarin gas. The Syria situation is everything the issue with Iran is not.

Iran represents a potential threat to Israel’s position as a nuclear hegemon and to the whole US-Israel-Saudi matrix of power in the region. But despite the hysteria, those in charge in Israel know very well that Iran has not yet made the decision to construct a nuclear weapon and that, even if they got one, the situation would be one of a nuclear standoff, not an imminent Iranian attack on Israel.

Public rhetoric reflects something different, but no one in the halls of the Israeli Knesset or in Washington thinks Iran will simply decide to push the nuclear button. That reality is precisely why it was so important for AIPAC and other anti-Iran forces to eliminate a containment strategy early on; they knew it was by far the most sensible policy in terms of avoiding war, but would weaken the regional position of the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf compatriots.

Syria is, from the Israeli point of view, a completely different matter. The chemical and biological weapons stockpiles are surely a real concern, but the issue is much wider than that.

While Israelis view Assad as an enemy, they’re well aware that their border with Syria has been basically quiet for forty years. Assad kept things stable while supporting Hezbollah’s activities in Southern Lebanon. Now that situation will likely drastically change.

It remains possible that Assad will prevail, but even if he does, the status quo ante is lost forever. It is very difficult to predict what an Assad regime will look like if he does win. One thing we know is that after all the anti-Assad rhetoric and repeated calls for him to step down, the international community will not be able to simply accept his victory. So Syria will be isolated, at least for a while, even from the rest of the Arab League. How does that affect Syria’s behavior vis-a-vis Israel, Hezbollah, Jordan, Turkey and Iran? Much will depend on the circumstances of any Assad victory, but in any case, it’s currently unpredictable.

The far more likely scenario, though, is that Assad will eventually be toppled and the various opposition groups will begin vying for power. That contest will undoubtedly prolong the extreme violence in Syria, but it will also be a battle for the hearts and minds of the Syrian people. That could well mean engaging Israel directly or by increasing support for Hezbollah. Do we really expect that Israel will just sit back and wait to see what will happen?

The fighting groups in Syria are certainly not all Salafist, al-Qaeda-type groups. But that does describe a number of them, and others are highly sectarian. Various groups are being backed by competing outside powers, including Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, with the US and its allies being a peripheral player even among those who are involving themselves from a distance. Iran and Hezbollah have also been working to support groups friendly to them so that they will continue to have an influential presence in the event Assad falls.

Now things get even more complicated. Israel had wisely avoided pushing the US toward intervention, until they announced their finding of the use of chemical weapons, which was likely a way to try to get the US to carry out or go along with an Israeli operation specifically targeting such weapons. Israel is really not anxious to see the US get more involved in Syria, another striking contrast with the Iran situation. It may turn out that US involvement is the best of a host of unpalatable options, but Israel is well aware that escalation in Syria is not in its interest.

The problem is that Hezbollah yesterday raised the possibility of their own direct intervention. A long-term Hezbollah presence in Syria is not likely something that Israel will sit still for. Tensions are flaring on the Israel-Lebanese border, not to mention the ongoing pressure cooker within Lebanon itself, which has been turned up much higher because of the Syrian civil war.

It is impossible to conceive of Israel sitting by quietly if Hezbollah becomes an active participant in Syria. That impossibility stems from the concern Israel has held from the day the armed conflict began, namely that Hezbollah would have access to Syrian weapons, chemical and conventional. Moreover, Israel would be quite concerned that Hezbollah would then have an established fighting presence on both the Lebanese and Syrian borders.

At this stage, there is no reason to believe that Hezbollah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s implication that direct intervention in Syria is on the table is anything more than bluster. Still, it cannot be dismissed. With each day, the likelihood of Assad holding on to power becomes dimmer and dimmer, and just from the sheer numbers, the greatest possibility by far is that a subsequent Syrian regime, or even a conglomeration of mini-states, is not going to be friendly to the Shi’ite militia/party. That’s why Iran continues to back Assad, and Hezbollah has a compelling reason to involve itself more directly in Syria: to bolster the minority forces that might be aligned with them in a post-Assad Syria.

With or without US involvement, these concerns are going to be present for Israel. The Israelis are not totally blind to the ramifications of taking action on their own, of course. But even though rumors of a recent Israeli strike on a chemical weapons depot in Syria appear unfounded, the dual concerns of chemical weapons falling into hands more likely to use them against Israel than Assad, and of a new regime with Salafist or similar tendencies taking power in Syria, are going to compel dramatic Israeli action sooner or later.

Though the Israeli-Syrian border has been quiet for decades, Israel is mindful of the role the pre-Assad Syrian state played in the run-up to the 1967 war. The early Ba’athist regime was more aggressive, consistently engaging Israel and causing then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to take many of the steps that eventually led to Israel launching the war, steps that he vainly hoped would mollify Syria and convince them to let Nasser handle the confrontation with Israel.

The Assad regime, both father and son, avoided such actions. A new Syrian regime may well embrace them, and given the widespread changes in the region, that prospect is sure to make Israel extremely anxious. Of course, an agreement with the Palestinians would go a long way toward blunting that threat, but that’s nothing but a pipe dream at this point.

Ultimately, the fact that the Israelis believe they have real and immediate reasons to act in Syria (unlike with Iran) — even if they’re reluctant to do so — might be the factor that eventually pushes the US and/or Europe to intervene. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make intervention any wiser or more likely to bring about positive results.