After much fanfare, President Trump struck Syria in tandem with his French and British counterparts on the night of Friday 13th ostensibly to punish the government of Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons – crucially a claim which is still unproven.
The high profile cruise and stand-off missile strikes appear to have done little real damage, underlining the shadowy nature of the double games being played out across the Middle East today. Questions will now arise over the fundamental nature of the Western engagement in Syria. It is an engagement driven by confused strategy, endemic anti-Russian and Iranian sentiment as well as behind the scenes influence of wealthy Sunni Arab states, with Saudi Arabia being chief amongst them. Israel is another factor in a fluid and multifaceted mess.
Strategy is very distinct in that it looks at the bigger picture, a bird’s eye view of the situation in Syria, as opposed to tactics which is managing smaller local battles. Some basic strategic questions to ask are: What are we doing? Why are we here? What is our goal, and how will we achieve it? Do we have the means to achieve that goal? A rigorous, logical and unbiased analysis of these questions would yield some very uncomfortable answers, especially for the US.
Assad’s brutal regime
No-one doubts that Assad’s regime is brutal. The strategic question to ask is, what will be the consequences of overthrowing him? The replacement option is not going to be liberal. It will be some strand of extremist, the most familiar of which is called ISIS/Daesh. ISIS has suffered a severe blow with the loss of much of its territory but it is not defeated – it has shrunk back to being an insurgency.
Then there is al-Qaeda, the old enemy of the West responsible for 9/11. Imagine the strategic disaster if an al-Qaeda affiliated group had taken the control of Damascus after Western military action to topple Assad in 2013? It may be that Obama did the world a favour in effectively halting the move to war. However overthrowing a cruel, albeit rational dictator and replacing him with irrational extremists who want to restore the Caliphate and attack the West is not the ideal option.
Did he use Chemical Weapons?
That brings the discussion back to the issue of chemical weapons use. The Syrian regime has stockpiled chemical weapons in the past, primarily as a deterrent against its old enemy Israel, whose military is far more capable than Syria’s. The problem with the instinctive assumption that ‘Assad did it’ whenever a chemical attack occurs is that the rebels also have a chemical weapons capability, which they’ve used, but which has unsurprisingly been ignored by the Western media. They also have much stronger incentive than Assad to stage a chemical attack, especially at this late stage of the war when he is on the brink of winning.
The timing of the latest incident looks suspicious, in a week when Assad was close to defeating the last threat to Damascus and Trump unambiguously said he wanted to leave Syria. The French ‘proof’ that Assad conducted the attack consisted of an open source video provided by activists opposed to the regime, which included witness testimony. The reliability of this source is debateable – they have motivation to portray the regime as the villains. Furthermore there is no chemical analysis to back up the claims, because interestingly the West struck before such analysis could be conducted on the ground.
Even if Assad did use the chemical weapons, it is questionable whether expansive military strikes are the answer. The question of how to deter chemical strikes – by all concerned – without causing inadvertent regime change is a crucial one when the extremist nature of Assad’s enemies is taken into account. In this I suspect that Trump did brilliantly in finding a ‘goldilocks’ solution (which he appears to specialise in) that appeared to be forceful without causing a confrontation with Assad’s Russian backers. He authorised enough weapon launches to suggest that he means to genuinely punish the regime, so that regime change backers couldn’t complain, while making sure that the actual damage did not endanger the regime.
In an ideal world Assad would have gone a long time ago. The core essence of realism however is that we do not live in an ideal world. If the rebels were even remotely moderate, regime change would happened some time ago. They are not, and the West is stuck with a less than perfect situation. The resilience of al-Qaeda in the face of Western airpower in places like Afghanistan and Yemen is an important indicator of the outcome if Assad had fallen to the extremists.
To answer the remaining strategic questions – what is the goal and how do we achieve that goal? The West does not have a viable strategy for post-Assad which inhibits overthrowing him to begin with. No Western power today has the resources to combat the inevitable insurgencies in such a situation – in fact the West generally struggles with counterinsurgency anyway. There is also the question of Russian military power to contend with.
There are other interested regional actors of course. The Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia, live in mortal fear of an expanding Iran using Syria as a proxy. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have vested interests in a successful Syrian rebellion culminating in the overthrow of Assad. This may be short sighted and counterproductive gambit on their part.
The historical threat to Israel has always been driven by Sunni extremism. Having Salafis in charge of Damascus would not have been good for Tel Aviv, whatever the contours of the Iranian threat. Israeli airpower combined with land based long range strike missiles means that they can deter Hezbollah and Iran, as well as interdict weapons supplies to the former. The Saudis meanwhile now acknowledge that ISIS, like al-Qaeda, is a threat to them.
Removing Iranian influence from the Middle East – the real reason for the Western obsession with overthrowing Assad – is not possible without invading that country itself. The costs of this would be prohibitive and damaging to the global economy. What the Syrian war has shown is the hypocrisy of certain quarters who will use the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine to push a nakedly geopolitical agenda. Condemning Assad regime atrocities against his own people while ignoring the devastating Saudi war in Yemen is abject hypocrisy. It is essentially exacerbating the suffering of an innocent Syrian people for political and commercial gains. Assad is clearly no angel, but neither are those who back or look the other way on supporting extremists to topple him.
Turn around and walk away
The fact is that Assad has won the war in Syria. The recent strikes on Syria, even if they were earnest were not substantial enough to change that outcome. Washington, Paris and London lose nothing from walking away. The economic development of Syria helps to lessen Syrian dependence on Iran and Russia and may help sharpen divergences in the interests of the three countries, weakening their alliances.
Syria was never a zone of Western influence post-independence, but a Russian one. It is debateable what the US achieves from getting itself bogged down in Syria with no discernible gain. Britain and France may also wish to consider that ironically the primary security threat to them comes from the very extremist ideologues that Assad himself is fighting.
Sometimes turning around and walking away is simply the best thing to do.