What should America's role be in tragic Syria?
This past week, the President of the United States Donald Trump with the key advice of the National Security Council, changed his position 180 degrees and ordered a cruise missile attack on Syrian air power resources. This measured military response was a reaction to an infamous chemical assault on the men, women and children of Syria by their president, Bashar al-Assad.
Experts within President Trump’s cabinet, through diligence and clarity of resolve, created sensible options for the president and effectively enacted his final decision. Following the military action, the United Nations Ambassador, the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor commented extensively on the odiferous participation of the Russian Federation in Syrian affairs. Additionally, the foremost authority on the Syrian Civil War and Russia’s involvement, General David Petraeus, in a CNN interview commented on the great complexities involved in seeking a successful solution.
The key question is whether or not Donald Trump’s reversal of policy is a permanent paradigm switch or merely an emotional reaction to the well covered atrocities suffered by Syrian children. And if it is a sea change in foreign affairs policy, then what will be the United States long term role and what kind of military might are we willing to commit to the cause?
The saga of the Syrian Civil War started with the Arab Spring in 2010 and 2011. Erupting from the ubiquitous availability of social media, citizens of despotic regimes across the Middle East rose up to protest the limits of their rights and freedoms. Syria eventually digressed into a fractious state of fierce combatants all seeking territorial superiority.
Currently, the Syrian Arab Republic retains 34 percent of the nation’s territory, ISIS/ISIL retains 33 percent of the territory, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which is primarily Kurdish retains 20 percent of Syrian territory, and various rebel forces including the Free Syrian Army and the al-Nusra Front hold the rest.
All of these enemy combatants seek domination or simply long-term survival in the face of a sinister Assad-led government who has murdered many of his country’s citizens. With close to a half-million casualties, the Syrian Civil War has been the bloodiest conflict in modern Middle East history. Correlatively, the unrest has propelled an exodus of over a million refugees who have flooded neighboring countries and have strained parts of Western Europe.
This most recent incident of gassing that compelled President Trump’s change of heart was horrifying, but that destruction of innocents was not the first. Bashar al-Assad killed hundreds in the 2013 Ghouta Attacks where his citizens were subjected to Saran Gas, Mustard Agents, and Chlorine Gas. Last week, Assad renewed his devilment against his own people again.
After the first violation of international law regarding the gas attacks in 2013, the weak and vacillating former U.S. President Barack H. Obama did not follow through on his warning addressed to Bashar al-Assad. Obama warned al-Assad that the chemical attacks on his own people was a “red line” and there would be severe consequences if crossed. When Assad crossed that line, Obama did relatively nothing in response.
Instead, Obama allowed Russia to broker a deal in which Syria would give up their chemical stockpiles. Apparently and not at all surprisingly, the Russians reneged on their word and most likely aided Syria in hiding their chemical ammunition. Shortly afterward in 2014, the Russian Federation and the militant organization Hezbollah became active military supporters of the Assad regime.
Capitulating to absolve himself from real responsibility, Obama forged an agreement to avoid accidental overlap in air power with Russia operating in Syria. Furthermore, Obama left to Vladimir Putin the ongoing policing of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles. Since Russia along with Iran is Assad’s staunchest allies, one has to wonder if Obama was not aware that this compact was an exercise in futility.
At that time, then-future candidate Donald Trump tweeted about Syria on Twitter 24 times. He warned the United States should not get involved in Syria no matter what happened there. Trump advised to let Russia to take the lead in dealing with the malevolent Syrian administration. Several times prior to the presidential primary campaign, Trump mentioned how the United States should stay far afield from all Syrian issues.
Now as president, Trump seems to have had a change of heart. His actions were sensible, measured and well executed. The strike of 59 Tomahawk Missiles from our Naval Vessels off the Syrian coast will not change the course the war. Our armament hit aircraft, petroleum storage, armories, supply bunkers, radar and air defense systems at the Syrian Air Base that launched the planes that perpetrated the chemical attacks. Nevertheless, the response was more moral than tactically crippling.
However, the action is a warning to combatants abroad that the United States will no longer lay fallow in the face of gross inhumanity.
Arguably the best expert on the Syrian conflict is the former director of the CIA, former CENTCOM Commander, and former Multi-National Supreme Commander in the Middle East General David Petraeus.
According to the general, Trump’s actions were laudable. “The strikes do send a message to friends and foes” and “This is the week where Donald Trump became Commander N Chief.” However, the general strategizes that a US ground presence may not be the answer. He believes the complexity of the fight for Syria involving four significant military forces, a radical militant organization, two formidable countries supporting the Syrian president, and various minor factions makes any plan of action potentially opaque. Also, Petraeus stated “Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are on the ground supporting Assad in Syria. Syria has not gone after ISIS, Assad has gone after Sunni opposition.” Consequently, if the US objective is the defeat of ISIS, Russia’s participation is not our answer. They simply wish to preserve Assad.
Cabinet officers have made the rounds on the news networks to try to clarify the administration’s position. General H. R. Mc Master, Trump’s National Security Adviser, stated the ultimate goal is regime change although the road to that objective is unclear. “How is it in anyone’s interest that this conflict in Syria and this catastrophe in the greater Middle East continues?”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley placed the bulk of the blame for this ongoing tragedy on the Russian Federation. Haley took an accusatory tone, “We’re going to call you out for the fact that you’re covering up” and “We’re not going to allow Russia to have Assad’s back anymore.” She became even more pointed and heated, “What we are going to say is look, when you have a violation of Security Council resolutions over and over again and you vetoed seven times, to protect this war criminal (Assad), we’re going to call you out on it.”
Secretary Tillerson shared Haley’s standpoint but did so more softly. “I’m disappointed because I think the real failure here has been Russia’s failure to live up to its commitments under the chemical weapons agreement that was entered into in 2013.” Perhaps unduly hopeful, Tillerson beckoned Putin to right the wrongs of their actions thus far in Syria. “Russia will be supportive of a process that will lead to a stable Syria.” The secretary is making an erroneous presumption.
All in all, the six-year-long catastrophe that is the Syrian Civil War will likely malinger for some time to come unless the United States is willing to commit to a full-scale military presence. After 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the astronomical loss of treasure and the heart wrenching loss of American lives, we do not want to sacrifice anymore to try to save another Middle Eastern nation. Chances are the malignant Assad will heinously assault his citizens again to protect his power. Specifically, the only smart move for the Trump administration are more measured responses and not sending thousands of US ground troops into the fray. The duplicitous Russians are not the answer, but neither is full scale American involvement. Unfortunately, the tragedy of Syrian strife is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.