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Syria

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Washington: The Playbook is Back

It was striking, in US media coverage of Donald Trump’s first hundred days in office, that most observers noted with relief that his foreign policy has turned out to be less radical than they feared. In fact, it’s not radical at all. He has already fired cruise missiles at a Middle Eastern country, a ritual that has been observed by every American president since Bill Clinton.

The old Donald Trump was an “isolationist” who opposed US military intervention overseas unless US interests were directly threatened.. When it seemed likely in 2013 that President Obama would attack the Syrian regime over its alleged use of poison gas on civilians, Trump tweeted: “The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.”

And lo! Obama did not attack Syria after all, although it had crossed the “red line” he had drawn in a statement the previous year.

On sober second thought – and after being warned by James Clapper, his Director of National Intelligence, that the evidence suggesting that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime was responsible for the gas attack, while robust, was not a “slam dunk” – Obama decided not to launch cruise missiles at Syria. (Curiously, there was no Trump tweet praising Obama and taking credit for his change of mind.)

This was the moment when Obama broke decisively with the foreign policy orthodoxy in Washington, and the think-tank “experts” and the reigning media pundits never forgave him for it. Towards the end of his second term, he explained his decision to Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, in the following terms.

“There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarised responses….In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”

It did not apply because destroying the Assad regime would just hand Syria over to the jihadi fanatics of Islamic State and al-Qaeda. It did not apply because the Russians might intervene to save Assad, perhaps leading to a direct US-Russian military confrontation. It did not apply because there was no support for an attack in Congress. And it did not apply because it was not even certain that the Syrian regime was to blame.

“Don’t do stupid shit” was Obama’s prime rule in foreign policy, and emulating George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in order to destroy Saddam Hussein’s non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” definitely qualified as stupid. Even treating the Middle East as a region vital to American security was stupid. With the Cold War over and the United States no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, it wasn’t even important any more.

Fast forward to 2016, and Obama must have been torn when he contemplated his successors. Hillary Clinton had worked for him and would preserve his legacy in domestic affairs, but she was totally orthodox in foreign policy and would follow the playbook wherever it led. Whereas Donald Trump, in his crude and simple way, actually shared Obama’s distrust of the foreign policy elite.

But with Trump it was just gut instinct, not a reasoned analysis of why the playbook was wrong. Once he was in office, and another poison gas attack in Syria landed on his desk, that instinct was swiftly overwhelmed by an even stronger urge to do something dramatic.

In politics, the Law of Mixed Motives always applies. No doubt Trump was truly horrified by the images of dead “beautiful babies”, but he was also aware that his policy successes in the first hundred days were sparse and that his popular approval numbers were way down.

So off went the cruise missiles, although the evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for the gas attack was even less certain than last time. It was purely a gesture, aimed mainly at the US domestic audience, and there has been no follow-up. But it did conform to the playbook’s rules, and the response by the “lamestream” media verged on the ecstatic.

Trump doesn’t give a fig for the playbook, but he does care about popularity. He campaigned as an isolationist, but now he has discovered that a little sabre-rattling abroad yields instant popularity at home.

He is surrounded by people who still believe in the playbook, and they now know how to press his buttons. There will probably be more “limited” military strikes with cruise missiles, not just in the Middle East but also in north-east Asia. And there may well be more wars, because sabre-rattling is not a precise science.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“Don’t…more”)

Cui Bono?

Donald Trump has spent a lot of time in the courts, so he must be familiar with the legal concept of “cui bono” – “who benefits?” When a crime is committed, the likeliest culprit is the person who benefited from the deed. But he certainly did not apply that principle when deciding to attack a Syrian government airbase with 59 cruise missiles early Friday morning.

The attack against Shayrat airbase, the first US military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in six years of civil war, was allegedly a retaliation for a poison gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun three days before that President Trump blamed on the Syrian regime. But who stood to benefit from the chemical attack in the first place?

There was absolutely no direct military advantage to be derived from killing 80 civilians with poison gas in Khan Sheikhoun. The town, located in al-Qaeda-controlled territory in Idlib province, is not near any front line and is of no military significance. The one useful thing that the gas attack might produce, with an impulsive new president in the White House, was an American attack on the Syrian regime.

Who would benefit from that? Well, the rebels obviously would. They have been on the ropes since the Assad regime reconquered Aleppo in December, and if the warming relationship between Washington and Moscow resulted in an imposed peace settlement in Syria they would lose everything. (Only a few days ago US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that removing Assad from power was no longer Washington’s priority.)

Al-Qaeda – and probably several other rebel groups – have access to chemical weapons. The country was awash with them before the war, because the ability to make a mass chemical-weapons attack on Israel was Syria’s only deterrent against an Israeli nuclear attack. (Assad, and his father before him, understood clearly that Syria would never be allowed to have nuclear weapons of its own.)

Chemical weapons were stored in military facilities all over Syria, and at one point half the country was under rebel control. So of course the rebels have had some for years, and are known to have used them on occasion in their own internecine wars. Would al-Qaeda have hesitated to use them on innocent civilians order to trigger an American attack on the Syrian regime? Of course not.

The results have already been spectacular. The developing Russian-American alliance in Syria is broken, the prospect of an imposed peace that sidelines the rebels – indeed, of any peace at all – has retreated below the horizon, and Rex Tillerson has just declared that “steps are underway” to form an international coalition to force Bashar al-Assad from power. Not a bad return on a small investment.

But we should also consider the possibility that Bashar al-Assad actually did order the attack. Why would it do that? For exactly the same reason: to trigger an American attack on the Syrian regime. From a policy perspective, that could make perfectly good sense.

The American attack didn’t really hurt much, after all, and it has already smashed a developing Russian-American relationship in Syria that could have ended up imposing unwelcome conditions on Assad. Indeed, Moscow and Washington might ultimately have decided that ejecting Assad (though not the entire regime) from power was an essential part of the peace settlement.

Assad doesn’t want foreigners deciding his fate, and he doesn’t want a “premature” peace settlement either. He wants the war to go on long enough for him to reconquer and reunite the whole country (with Russian help, of course). So use a little poison gas, and Donald Trump will obligingly over-react. That should end the threat of US-Russian collaboration in Syria.

Either of these possibilities – a false-flag attack by al-Qaeda or a deliberate provocation by the regime itself — is quite plausible. What is not remotely believable is the notion that the stupid and evil Syrian regime just decided that a random poison gas attack on an unimportant town would be a bit of fun.

Villains in DC Comics do bad things simply because they are evil. The players in the Syrian civil war do bad things because they are part of serious (though often evil) strategies. Whoever committed the atrocity at Khan Sheikhoun wanted the United States to attack the Syrian regime, and Donald Trump fell for it.

But if Trump was taken in by the Syrians, he certainly exploited his attack to send a very serious message to China and North Korea. He is a player too, after all, and it can hardly be an accident that he timed the attack for the day of his meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping.

Wheels within wheels. It is going to be a wild ride.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“Al-Qaeda…own”)

The Vanishing Civilians of Aleppo

Did it cross your mind occasionally, in the past week, to wonder where all of the “250,000 civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo” have gone? As the area of the city under rebel control dwindled – by Wednesday morning the Syrian regime’s troops had recaptured three-quarters of it – did you see massive columns of fleeing civilians, or mounds of civilian dead?

If several hundred thousand people were on the move, you would expect to be seeing video images of it. If they were fleeing into the enclave the rebels still hold (to escape the evil Syrian army), you would expect the rebels to give us dramatic images of that. They certainly gave us footage of every civilian killed by Russian bombing in eastern Aleppo over the past three months.

And if hundreds of thousands or even just tens of thousands of civilians were fleeing for safety into government-held territory, you would expect the regime’s propagandists to be making equally striking images available. “Look!” they would say. “The civilians really loved President Bashar al-Assad all along.”

Or maybe the civilians are all dead. Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, warned just a week ago that if Assad’s forces went on advancing, then “the besieged parts of eastern Aleppo” would become “one giant graveyard.” So where are those quarter-million bodies? Or even a few thousand bodies? That’s kind of hard to hide.

Here’s a radical thought: Have most of those quarter-million people suddenly become invisible because they were never really there in the first place?

There were certainly a significant number of civilians trapped with the rebels: you saw them crying and shaking their fists every time the Russians bombed another hospital. But even then, did you sometimes think how strange it was that the Russian air force never seemed to bomb anything but hospitals? Where’s the strategic sense in that?

Well, here’s a clue. There were no foreign journalists in eastern Aleppo. They were quite reasonably afraid of being kidnapped by one of the many rebel groups in the city and held for ransom – or accused of being spies and ritually slaughtered by one of the more extreme Islamist outfits.

All the reporting out of eastern Aleppo for the past three months has been what the rebel groups wanted us to see, and nothing else. And to them, the presence of large numbers of “defenseless civilians”, the more the better, was their best protection against a full-scale onslaught by the regime.

So of course they gave us video of every civilian killed by a bomb, and greatly exaggerated the number of civilians in their part of the city, and almost never showed their own fighters.

There’s no crime in this. It’s the way propaganda works, and nobody fighting a war can afford to be too respectful of the truth. The real question is this: why did the international media fall for it?

For months, what was obviously rebel propaganda has been shown by the world’s media as if it were the impartial truth. Was it just laziness, or was it subservience to a political agenda set by the West and its main allies in the Middle East? A bit of both, probably.

The United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were all determined to see the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, even if it did take six years of civil war. And even though they didn’t agree on what they wanted to replace it with.

Washington pursued the dream of a democratic, secular Syria. Riyadh and Ankara wanted a decisive victory by the Sunni Arab majority (about 60-65 percent of the population) and an authoritarian Islamic state. But they all agreed on the need to overthrow Assad, and left the rest for later.

Syrians from the start were much more ambivalent. Few loved the Assad regime, which was repressive and brutal. But many Syrians – including many Sunni Muslims, especially in the cities – saw the regime as their only protection against the triumph of an even nastier Islamist dictatorship.

There was never a mass uprising in Aleppo against the regime. Various rebel groups from the overwhelmingly Sunni rural areas around Aleppo stormed into the city in 2012 and won control over the eastern half, but it was never clear that the local residents were glad to see them.

On the other hand, it was not a good idea to look too unhappy about it, so over the next four years a great many people left the rebel-held part of the city, whose population gradually dwindled to – well, we don’t know exactly how many remained by this year, but it was certainly not a quarter-million or anywhere near it.

And it would appear that when the Syrian army retook most of eastern Aleppo in the past week, most of those people just stayed in their homes and waited to be “liberated”. Some of them will be terrified of being arrested and tortured, especially if they collaborated with the rebels even under duress. And others will simply be relieved that it’s over.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 11. (“There…outfits”;and “There’s…it”))

Sometimes Trump Is Right

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Donald J. Trump’s record is not that good, but he does get it right once in a while. He got it right on Tuesday, when he said that Hillary Clinton would be dangerously agressive in Syria if she wins the presidency.

Trump went too far, of course. He always does. He claimed that Clinton would trigger World War Three with her Syrian policy, which is utter nonsense. Given the current international balance of power, it is almost impossible to get a Russian-American war going. The Russians simply aren’t that stupid.

Even a new Cold War is hard to imagine. The Russians know that they would lose it in only a few years, so they would refuse to play their allotted role in any such scenario. But US-Russian diplomatic relations would get distinctly frosty for a while – and the United States, in the meantime, would be up to its neck in the Syrian civil war and betting on the wrong horse.

What Trump actually said, in an interview conducted in his Florida golf resort between bites of fried egg and sausages, was that the United States should focus on defeating ISIS. “We should not be focusing on Syria. You’re going to end up in World War Three over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton.”

The Clinton policy in question is her promise (repeated in the third debate) to declare a no-fly zone and “safe zones” on the ground in Syria to protect non-combatants. Those zones, of course, would deny the Syrian government the chance to recover the territory it has lost to the rebels, and deprive the Russian air force of the ability to help it in that task.

But what if the Syrians and the Russians don’t accept that the United States has the right to set up no-fly zones on Syrian territory just because it feels like it? What if they send their planes into those zones and dare the US air force to shoot them down? Then the US has to choose between backing down and being publicly humiliated – or shooting down Russian aircraft and (according to Trump) starting World War Three.

“You’re not fighting Syria any more, you’re fighting Syria, Russia and Iran, all right?” Trump explained. If Hillary Clinton set up her no-fly zones and “safe zones”, she would be asking for a war with Russia.

She would indeed be asking for it – but she knows that she probably would not get it. The Russians might shoot down a few American planes in response, and the United Nations would plead with both sides to show restraint. By then both sides would be sufficiently frightened that they would be all too happy to back away from their confrontation.

The Russians would be especially happy to do so, because they know perfectly well that they could not win a war with the United States. Even leaving aside the question of nuclear weapons (which make such a war unthinkable), Russia is simply not a credible rival to the United States any more: it has half the population of the former Soviet Union, and an economy one-tenth the size of the United States.

So Clinton would not really be courting World War Three if she did what she has promised. She would, however, be doing something very reckless and stupid. After Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the United States really does not need to get more deeply entangled in another unwinnable war in the Middle East.

What Trump is advocating is actually the policy that Obama has been following over the whole five years of the Syrian civil war: concentrate on eliminating ISIS, and do not get involved in the rebel military campaign to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime however much you may dislike it. No more moral crusades.

Whereas Clinton, by declaring no-fly zones, would effectively be creating safe areas for the rebels to operate out of. However, the great majority of the active anti-regime fighters belong to ISIS, or to the equally extreme group that used to be called the Nusra Front and is now changing its name every week or so in an attempt to conceal its true origins as a breakaway part of Islamic State and an affiliate of al-Qaeda.

Most of the smaller rebel groups that Washington calls “moderates” are actually less extreme Islamists who are either voluntarily allied with the Nusra Front, or in thrall to it. But the fantasy still lives in Washington that it can bring together enough genuine “moderates” to create a “third force” that defeats both the Assad regime and the extremists of ISIS and the Nusra Front.

This has been the official position of the “Washington consensus” on foreign policy for five years now, and Hillary Clinton is a paid-up member of that delusionary group. If she carries through on her promises, she probably will trigger a crisis with the Russians, and she will certainly involve the United States much more deeply in the Syrian civil war.

It’s almost enough to make you vote for Trump. But not quite.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“Trump…horse”)