President Trump announced the firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syrian airbase targets in the wake of Sarin gas attacks – reportedly by the Assad Syrian government on its own civilians. I wondered at the motivations behind Assad’s use of Sarin. It simply did not seem to make sense. If anything, Assad had found himself moving back from the precipice edge. On March 30, 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that Assad’s long-term status “will be decided by the Syrian people”. On the same day, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley stated “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out”. So why would Assad take such an obviously regime-suicidal action? Was it actually a false flag attack from the Syrian ISIS rebels or the Russians?
I don’t know the answer but it also doesn’t really matter. Let’s step back for a moment.
As I wrote in The Syrian Cost of Obama’s Iran Deal:
In 2011, during what has been called “The Arab Spring”, revolts brought down both the Egyptian and Tunisian presidents. Protests also erupted in Syria and quickly escalated. In July 2011, the Free Syrian Army was formed by military defectors and Syria began to fall into civil war along religious and sectarian lines.
Assad’s government belongs to the Alawite Muslim sect which is most closely aligned with Shia Muslims (or Shiites) and was supported in the middle east by Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah. The rebels were primarily Sunni Muslims and were backed by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The matter became more convoluted in 2013, when forces of the Islamic State used the civil war as an opportunity to invade Syria – less formal incursions had begun in late 2011. The Islamic State ended up occupying about one-half of Syria – and became known as ISIS. The rebel fighters, meanwhile, saw their ranks swell exponentially with foreign fighters comprised of varying factions with differing ideologies and backgrounds.
In simpler terms, Syria was essentially fighting two wars – the original internal civil war and the newer invasive war – against multiple foes with shifting identities and loyalties.
And here’s the crux of the matter. The United States had long-desired a regime change in Syria, ostensibly due to Assad’s support of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah. The United States has also stated its goal of crushing ISIS. Both groups – the Assad Regime and ISIS – are extremist groups. The more moderate Sunni Rebels (the initial rebel group fighting against Assad) who are aligned with the Sunni Government of Saudi Arabia are not a target. In fact, if Obama had provided the proper nudge at the proper time, Assad’s government would have fallen. A moderate Sunni government in Syria would likely have provided stability and also have made Iran’s ongoing transfer of arms to Hezbollah much more problematic. It was a fear of Sunni Muslims that united the Shiites of Iran and Assad’s Syria. And it was Obama’s pursuit of a Nuclear Deal with Iran that stayed America’s hand.
There is a third element that now weighs in – Russia.
Russia has long supported the Assad regime and had been assisting Assad politically, financially and with military aid since the beginning of the conflict. On September 30, 2015, Russia officially joined the fight in Syria with a series of airstrikes. Note that Russian airstrikes did not target ISIS-held areas but instead concentrated on the coastal areas of the Latakia Province. Note also that the Syrian port of Tartous – sometimes called Tartus – is the location of the only Russian naval base in the Mideast – and is of significant strategic importance to Russia – sparing Russian warships a return to Black Sea bases for repairs and refueling.
Russia now has what it wanted all along – complete control of its naval and air bases in the eastern Mediterranean – which blends into Putin’s earlier strategy in Crimea with its deepwater port of Sevastopol. Russia has recently announced the establishment of a permanent naval base in Tartous – the old one had been leased – along with a massive upgrade and expansion of existing facilities. Russia also stated they are now looking at additional naval bases in the broader area – in particular Egypt.
So why would Trump place himself squarely in the middle of this potential quagmire?
President Trump had much to gain with the attack – and the timing. Can you think of a more powerful dinner conversation than President Trump leaning over and whispering to China’s President Xi Jinping that a missile strike was being launched – at that very moment – against Syria. While they bandied about the topic of North Korea? I’m sure it also got Kim Jong-un’s attention. And Iran’s.
Trump was not just standing up to Assad – or even Iran – although he did both. He stood up to Putin – and changed the conversational dynamic in the process. Trump acted decisively – in a measured, rational manner – and diminished claims of Putin’s influence as he did so.
President Trump’s actions also highlighted Obama’s multiple failures in the Middle East. Gone is Obama’s claim of having removed chemical weapons from Syria. His lack of action on Syria – and all the humanitarian horrors that ensued – have been on full display. Focus is sharpening over Obama’s disastrous Iranian Nuclear Deal. As famously noted, “Obama described an Iranian capability that had been neutralized; the Iranians described a nuclear capability that had been preserved”. Iran remains a pending test of President Trump’s foreign policy resolve.
President Trump may have had suspicions over the origin of the Sarin event – maybe he didn’t – but that didn’t change his actions. Nor did it need to. The action was being taken against extremism and the use of chemical weapons. If Assad was indeed the perpetrator a message needed to be sent swiftly. If it turned out to be some other element – like ISIS – President Trump’s action would refocus the Assad regime on stamping out ISIS. No matter the culprit, extremism – and the use of chemical weapons – would be impacted. And I believe that impacting extremism in Syria was the true goal.
As NSA General McMaster noted: “I think what it does communicate is a big shift in Assad’s calculus.”
Russia will not – under any foreseeable circumstances – abandon the Tartous base, but they also do not want any open conflict with the United States. Putin’s primary goal was securing their naval base. And bear in mind, Russia was warned of the impending attack. While not happy, they took no action. Russia – rightly in many respects – blames the U.S. for destabilizing the Middle East with our actions in Iraq and Libya – actions that provided an opening for Islamic extremists. A dampening of Islamic Extremism is the underlying goal of Russia – it’s a large part of Putin’s reasoning for involvement in Syria – and his desire for the Tartous naval base.
Russia may continue to support Assad in the short-term, and will continue to support an Alawite government in Syria (Assad belongs to the Alawite Muslim sect which is most closely aligned with Shia Muslims) in the long-term – but Assad will almost certainly not be the one leading that government. If Putin sees signs of continued success against Islamic Extremism he will publicly grumble, privately smile and keep his Mediterranean Naval Base.
Both Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson felt confident enough to publicly call out Russia post-strike. As Tillerson noted at his joint press conference following the missile attack:
“The U.S. and the Russian government entered into agreements whereby Russia would locate these weapons, they would secure the weapons, they would destroy the weapons, and that they would act as the guarantor that these weapons would no longer be present in Syria.
Clearly, Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on that commitment from 2013. So either Russia has been complicit, or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement.”
But it was later comments by Tillerson that showed the true calculus in Syria:
“Overall, the situation in Syria is one where our approach today and our policy today is, first, to defeat ISIS. By defeating ISIS we remove one of the disruptive elements in Syria that exists today. That begins to clarify for us opposition forces and regime forces. In working with the coalition — as you know, there is a large coalition of international players and allies who are involved in the future resolution in Syria.
So it’s to defeat ISIS; it’s to begin to stabilize areas of Syria, stabilize areas in the south of Syria, stabilize areas around Raqqa through ceasefire agreements between the Syrian regime forces and opposition forces. Stabilize those areas; begin to restore some normalcy to them. Restore them to local governance – and there are local leaders who are ready to return, some who have left as refugees — they’re ready to return to govern these areas. Use local forces that will be part of the liberation effort to develop the local security forces — law enforcement, police force. And then use other forces to create outer perimeters of security so that areas like Raqqa, areas in the south can begin to provide a secure environment so refugees can begin to go home and begin the rebuilding process.
In the midst of that, through the Geneva Process, we will start a political process to resolve Syria’s future in terms of its governance structure, and that ultimately, in our view, will lead to a resolution of Bashar al-Assad’s departure.”
Assad is finished in a practical sense. But he was finished anyway. There is simply no way he can lead Syria on a long-term, ongoing basis. His purpose in the short-term – if he is not deposed by his own military – is to help fight ISIS. That’s it. He deviated too far and President Trump acted. Assad’s lack of internal support, his attacks on his own people and his facilitation of Iranian shipments of arms to Hezbollah has all but determined his long-term fate.
It is of no coincidence that Trump had meetings with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the President of Egypt and Abdullah II, the King of Jordan in just the last week. Events which were preceded by meetings earlier this year. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in particular, has become a force against Islamic Extremism in the Middle East. And in an under-reported event, Saudi Arabia agreed to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen earlier this year. Assad is now isolated from all but Iran and an opportunistic Russia.
In many respects, this represents a stunning turn from where we stood prior to President Trump’s election. Iran and Russia seemed poised to divide up Syria with Assad as a lingering figurehead doing Iran’s bidding. We now are witnessing a shifting scenario whereby Russia is in a sense marginalized while Iran grows isolated. This is not to say Iran’s influence is by any stretch gone – it is not – thanks in large part to Obama’s lifting of economic restrictions and his misguided influx of cash – but it is diminished.
The obvious risk is the potential need for a deeper level of U.S. involvement as near-term events continue to unfold. But it appears to have been a risk worth taking. Obama’s Red Line in the Sand was ultimately painted with the blood of the Syrian people. President Trump cannot now allow the same events to unfold again. As Colin Powell famously noted, “If you break it, you own it”. President Trump now has at least a partial ownership of Syria. And he has directly acknowledged this fact.
The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have all been recent visitors to the White House. Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Trump for talks on regional peace. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with a Trump envoy in March and conveyed that a peace deal was possible. Informal talks are taking place at an unprecedented level.
King Abdullah II made some notable comments at his post meeting press conference with President Trump:
“We are very encouraged with the President’s determination to support Arab and Muslim states in their fight against terrorism. But it is not only the fight of terrorism inside of our societies, but we, as Arab-Muslim states standing behind the international community in being able to defeat this international scourge.
We launched the Arab Peace Initiative last week. It offers a historic reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as all member states of the Arab League. It is the most comprehensive framework for lasting peace and it ensures statehood for the Palestinians, but also security, acceptance and normal ties for Israel with all Arab countries and hopefully all Islamic countries.“
Make no mistake. Things are changing rapidly in the Middle East. It might finally be for the better.
newer post Russia’s Strategic Interest in Syria