Trump is still a danger to America and the world. But if he exercises American power in a way that will help save lives and give a brutal tyrant and his backers pause in their relentless, murderous assault on the people of Syria, those claiming to care about refugees, human rights, and human life would do those stated cares justice in supporting a long-overdue substantive pushback against the outrages of Assad and his Russian friends. If you truly want to support refugees, supporting standing up to Assad.
Published on LinkedIn Pulse April 13, 2018
By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter@bfry1981) April 13th, 2018, a more in-depth version of this brief piece published by War Is Boring on April 11th, 2018, and both adapted from an article published April 8th, 2017
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AMMAN — Almost exactly a year ago, I was working on a piece I had originally titled “Time to Put Up or Shut Up, Donald.” As I continued to write, though, reports that Trump was considering military strikes against Assad’s government for his horrific then-recent chemical weapons attack on civilians designed to terrorize his own people surfaced on Tuesday, April 4th, 2017; that ensuing Thursday, April 6th, it was time for your author here (finally) have some fun and go to a party, and by the time I got home, when I had already thought the odds of Trump eventually hitting Assad were greater than those of him not hitting him, the strikes had already been launched, necessitating something of a reworking of my article.
There was a lot to digest , and there still is now. With this latest chemical attack in Douma against civilians and its blatant timing (and in light of Trump’s recent announcement just days earlier that he was planning on withdrawing all U.S. forces from Syria a year later Assad seems to be deliberately testing, even daring Trump, as he had with Obama before him. Also like a year ago, Trump seems to very much be favoring a military strike or strikes as a response. There are few times when things so nearly completely repeat themselves like they are now, and my feelings on these issues remain the same.
Can Trump (still) Succeed Where Obama Failed?
Full disclosure: I voted for Obama twice and enthusiastically but I would say the biggest mistake of his presidency (apart from his pitiful response in 2016 to Russian election interference, what I call the [First] Russo-American Cyberwar) was backing away from his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used them to barbaric effect against his own people back in the fall of 2013. At that time, Assad and his forces were reeling and U.S. military action targeting his forces, especially the Syrian Arab Air Force, would have been decisive in changing the trajectory of the Syrian Civil War, especially since a robust Western entry and enforcement of no-fly zones would have prevented Russia’s subsequent robust entry in the fall of 2015.
In the spring of 2017, the situation was quite different: Assad had obliterated many of the rebel strongholds, most notably (and most tragically) Aleppo, and ISIS, too, had been severely weakened, facing its final days in Mosul, Iraq, one of its two last major strongholds, and in the process of being encircled in its other stronghold in Raqqa, Syria, its “capital;” furthermore, not only did Assad’s government have the of support of the Shiite Lebanese militia Hezbollah and of Iran’s military on the ground (among other Shiite militias), but it also enjoyed the robust military support of Russia and its vaunted air force. And even though Assad’s military had been whittled to down a shell of its former self(even his Syrian Arab Air Force is running low on parts and serviceable craft and can ill afford aircraft losses), with his allies, he was in far stronger position then than he was when Obama backed away from striking Syrian forces in 2013, even if heavily dependent on these allies.
Now, a year later in the spring of 2018, all this is even more so the case: ISIS is long out of Mosul and was pushed out of Raqqa back in October; Assad’s Syrian Arab Air Force saw 20% of its serviceable aircraft destroyed by Trump’s strike from a year ago; most recently the rebel enclave in Eastern Ghouta has fallen; and Russia is still shamelessly lying and covering up for Assad even after this latest attack, is functioning as Assad’s air force, and even felt bold enough to attack U.S. forces in early February (albeit with Russian mercenaries under the control of a key Putin oligarch-ally, Yevgeniy Prigozhin); that attack ended up going disastrously for the Russians, “hundreds” of whom were killed.
And still, the most powerful military force on the planet—that of the United States, which in 2016 spent more on its military than Russia and the other seven largest military spenders in the world combined and over half of those are close U.S. allies while none are Russian allies—can easily make a huge impact, and let those who employ the use of chemical weapons against civilians, or support those who do, know that there will be a cost for such actions. When trump hit Assad’s airbase a year ago, it seems a warning shot had then been fired to that effect.
But now, a year later, the worst chemical attack in Syria since then is directly challenging the abstention of major chemical weapons attacks brought about that warning shot.
Before backing away from striking Assad, Obama spoke in the Rose Garden on August 31st, 2013, asking a question:
Here’s my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?
Make no mistake — this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorist who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?
We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us.
His words ring just as true today.
Obama sadly, and rather pathetically, did not put serious action behind his eloquent words about why we needed to support an international system where the use of such weapons of mass destruction not tolerated. The Republicans later skewered Obama for backing away—even as most of them hypocritically criticized his proposed military action at the time (many even signing a formal letter stating he needed authorization from Congress to act) before he backed away from it, a decision Obama made in part because they would not support him; Trump himself tweeted at Obama not to attack Syrian forces back then.
Since then, Republicans have proceeded to criticize Obama for having a weak strategy even while offering precious few specifics that differed from Obama’s strategy, as did Trump, who, just as hypocritically as the others in his newly adopted Republican Party, also repeatedly asserted Obama’s weakness was responsible for the continuing horrors in Syria, and, as president, he has continued to assert this after this latest chemical attack.
I figured that Trump, ever the narcissist, values his public perception as much as anything, and after beating up on Obama’s weakness for years, and given a chance to show himself to be the more “decisive” and “macho” “man” in a situation that had no choice but to be compared to Obama’s waffling in the fall of 2013, would most certainly at least be tempted to reverse his pro-Russia and somewhat pro-Assad policy and to act to punish Assad where Obama declined to do so. As I watched him speak on the issue over the past few days, Trump even seemed genuinely moved by the horrific images of dying babies and other civilians coming out of Idlib.
And putting aside these considerations of personality or motivations here, there are very good reasons for Trump to have done what he did and to do it again.
Why Trump Was Right and Would Be Right Again
The Situation in Syria, March 17th, 2017
Before Trump fired cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield, Assad and his Russian backers were clearly feeling they could do anything they want and get away with it and feared no U.S. intervention; impunity would be their modus operandi, there would be no political settlements, no “peace negotiations;” no, Assad and his backers were going to continue to systematically exterminate any whiff of opposition, city by city, town by town, corpse by corpse. Concessions? To rebels? To terrorists? To “terrorists?” One must simply ask: why would he need to comply with the demands of the international community? What pressures existed that would actually constrain Assad or extract any concessions, especially when Russia—one of the most powerful nations in the world and with the most centralized power structure at the top of any major world power (except, perhaps, China with Xi now a president-for-life)—would just lie and claim “terrorists,” not at the Syrian military, were to blame for whatever atrocity Assad (or Russia) had perpetrated, or that the atrocity in question had not happened at all, as it has for years? Does anyone think rhetorical flourishes from the West, Turkey, and Arab League members would change anything? When Russia at the time had vetoed seven different United Nations Security Council resolutions against the Assad regime, with Russia’s ground, naval, and air forces (along with Iran and Hezbollah and other Shiite militias) inside Syria energetically empowering Assad to operate knowing there would be no substantive consequences no matter what atrocity he committed—even if he killed hundreds of thousands of people with indiscriminate attacks and the deliberate targeting of civilians, even if he used outlawed chemical weapons of mass destruction to kill his own people—what on earth is left to compel Assad to even feel the need to negotiate, let alone stop his mass slaughter of civilians?
The sad answer in our real world as it exists today is clear: one thing, and one thing only…
force exerted by the United States of America.
Especially with Russia operating in Syria supporting Assad, only the United States could lead any kind of military force to challenge the above status quo. Nothing else could give Assad pause or cause him to consider restraint. But the United States showed Assad that even with the Russian military there, his forces were not safe if President Trump, the U.S. Military’s Commander in Chief, decided to strike, which he did. And, with Russia being dramatically weaker than the U.S. (especially with the U.S. many allies), there is little Russia can do to stop the U.S. (but more on that another time).
In this situation confronting Trump last year, there were two options: do nothing serious and allow a regime that has no interest, inclination, or reason in its mind to negotiate or concede anything to continue to kill anyone it pleases and destroy anything it wants anytime it pleases while facing no serious consequences, or the United States could have hit back, sent a message, and forced Assad to bend to the will of the world by behaving less barbarically towards his own people or face serious consequences, from warning punitive strikes to major degradation of his armed forces and beyond.
This is the same binary choice facing Trump today.
And contrary to what you might hear, this can be good for mitigating the conflict overall. After all, as I wrote five years ago, the current dynamics are clear: with Assad waging war on the people of Syria, nothing will stop the flow of refugees that risks further destabilizing Syria’s neighbors that include multiple major U.S. allies—a flow that has helped spur an explosion of right-wing insanity in both Europe (where Russia is “weaponizing” the refugee crisis to damage the EU) and America, a right wing insanity that feeds the rise of radical Islamic extremism even as the war in Syria does the same—unless the war stops and/or safe zones are established, as nothing will convince the more than 5.5 million Syrians who have fled Syria (and that number only counts those registered by the UN: Jordan alone is estimated to have around 800,000 unregistered Syrians, compared with only some 659,000 registered ones; this doesn’t even get to the more than 6.1 million internally displaced people, or IDPs, inside Syria) to return home as long as an impudent Bashar al-Assad feels he can kill at whim all while the world makes noise but ultimately does little more than shrugs its shoulders in response. These dynamics, too, also feed the growth in violent Islamic extremism worldwide and right-wing extremism in the West in a vicious feedback loop.
I hear and read too many “experts” present a false Sophie’s choice: either we let Assad win or ISIS wins/the war doesn’t end. Well, in case you’re missing it, ISIS has had its “caliphate” virtually destroyed—thanks to a slow but steady strategy of Obama’s that was clearly coming to penultimate fruition even before Trump was sworn in (a fact that won’t stop Trump from taking credit for it)—and history shows that non-intervention in brutal wars, especially involving mass killings (e.g., Cambodia and Rwanda) can allow the wars and killing to continue unabated for a long time and can lead to genocide, while well-executed intervention (e.g., WWII, Bosnia, and Kosovo) stops or at least partially halts and reduces mass killing.
Now, of course, there is a possibility that the intervention will fail or make things worse—a possibility exaggerated by the recent memory of Iraq, more of an aberration of Western intervention in its relative mass incompetence than the post-Cold War norm—but any attempt to solve any problem in life risks making that problem worse, so that possibility is, by itself, an illogical reason to not intervene, a total cop-out, and a path to inhuman nihilism.
As one man—Kassem Eid—who survived the 2013 Ghouta chemical attack that nearly prompted Obama to attack Assad noted a year ago under the same circumstances:
If you really care about refugees, if you really care about helping us, please, help us stay in our country… we don’t want to become refugees, we want to stay in our country, help us establish safe zones…please take out Assad’s air forces so they won’t be able to commit more atrocities.
The United States and its allies are more than capable of doing just that, and if Trump’s action is not a one-off—and let’s be honest, this ego-driven narcissist with authoritarian, even fascistic tendencies has had his first real exercise of power and he will love it, not in the least because he has earned global praise for it (and only it),—the likelihood is more than not that this is all going to be mainly handled by professionals in the U.S. military, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis is no Donald Rumsfeld. As detestable and anti-refugee as Trump is, because of his decision, and especially if he follows through now with an even stronger response than that of last year, there could be a greater chance than at any time since 2013 for the much-needed establishment of safe-zones protected by the international community.
Trump striking Assad again and setting a clear line on the medium-to-large scale use of chemical weapons will also certainly make Iran question the cost of its support of Assad along with helping to limit the expansion of Hezbollah’s power, though Israel is already consistently acting on that front.
Also, as I pointed out also back in 2013, there is still little risk to the U.S. and a high-probability of success in striking Assad’s air power, military bases, or heavy weapons, which are difficult or impossible to hide. Hezbollah, Assad, and ISIS have enough on their hands to devote much to any “response” to the U.S.
Finally—and again, I will repeat I thought Obama’s inaction (and the Republican-led Congress’s vocal lack of support) were major mistakes in 2013—there is an important difference between now and 2013. Back then, as I noted above, Assad’s forces were being pushed back and U.S. intervention may have led to the toppling of his government, and this not long after the disillusionment of the experience of Libya’s post-NATO-intervention problems (although I still would say that the intervention was successful in saving many lives and preventing a civil war from being prolonged, but more on that another time); no other major power had intervened in Syria and thus owned the conflict, to speak, and that was another solid argument Obama could have put out on the side of non-intervention, even if non-intervention was still the weaker overall argument. Today, Russia is heavily involved in Syria, far more than the U.S., and it is hard to imagine Putin simply pulling out and letting the situation devolve into chaos, a result that would be blamed in large part on Russia and that would hurt Putin’s prestige and his own credibility when it comes to Russia intervening anywhere. With another great power invested besides (and more so than) America, unlike in 2013, the idea that the toppling of Assad would result in anarchy and a terrorist safe haven is less of a likelihood, since now two great powers will be heavily invested in the outcome if the U.S. becomes more heavily involved and actions lead to Assad’s ouster (unlikely anytime soon) or weakening (more likely). If the U.S. wipes out the Syrian Arab Air Force, that Russia will have to do all the heavily (air)lifting for Assad, dramatically increasing the costs of Russian support and also further exposing Russian troops to risk. So even just striking Assad will also make Putin pay.
If you let your justifiable hatred of Trump get in the way of your support of even someone like him doing more than anyone has yet to help the long-term situation of Syrian refugees and Syrians still in Syria—if you refuse to understand that these strikes may this time be the first steps in creating paths for Syrians to safely return to Syrian soil and even if they aren’t will still make it harder for Assad to engage in mass killing—you care more about your personal feelings and personal politics than actually helping refugees and saving lives at worse, or are incredibly myopic at best.
Don’t get me wrong: there are things about this that worry me, and I will write more on that another time. But removing the issues of domestic U.S politics, the Russia investigation, and possible major conflicts with Iran and North Korea, as far as Syria is concerned, hitting Assad’s forces in response to this chemical attack and other outrages is easily the best, and right, thing to do.
In other words, yes, oppose trump in general, but when he does good, as rare as that it, take it as a gift.
The U.S. Can Still Be a Force for Good in Syria
When it comes to Syria, the most important things are helping save as many lives as possible and allowing ways for refugees to return home free from of persecution. And as someone who truly hates Trump and sees him as the threat to democracy and the world order that he is, it is here that as a student of policy and a person who cares about saving lives and preserving international norms that it is easy for me to support this action enthusiastically, despite my misgivings for the man calling the shots behind it. I felt this way a year ago, and I feel this way now.
As with any operation, though, expectations need to be reasonable.
Even if Trump just engages in another one-off strike, the deterrent effects will save lives. But sustained enforcement of red-lines designed to protect civilians would obviously be better. But the idea that modest U.S. intervention would somehow change the course of the war now is absurd. But while Assad and Russia continue to mop up any resistance, how brutal they are to the civilian populations is something the U.S. can and should constrain, and by force if necessary; while it’s almost impossible to envision a rebel victory, the U.S. can put an extremely high price on acts of mass brutality and mass murder against civilians and of defying international norms on the use of weapons of mass destruction, chemical or otherwise. Assad may control most of Syria again soon, but how many Syrians are dead vs. alive is something the U.S. can still affect in meaningful ways if it is willing to act in moments like this. And even now, U.S. and allied air forces can, even in this late stage of the war, impose and safe zones in parts of Syria that will make it impossible for Assad and the Russians to use their very effective and very efficient air forces and heavy weapons in these areas without themselves suffering serious casualties. This will greatly increase the costs for both Assad and Putin and their allied forces and begin to make other options, including negotiations, more attractive and also safer for them. With more constraints on air support and the use of heavy weapons, the qualitative edge pro-Assad forces have over the rebels will shrink, as will their ability to efficiently kill civilians. This could create a more humane ending to one of the most brutal wars in recent memory, for, as this recent chemical attack is showing, Assad and the Russians are showing little restraint as their successes mount. Apart from saving lives, a less brutal end to the war will also sow the seeds of a more stable peace.
As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in when Obama was wrestling with the same issues, “For all the risks of hypocrisy and ineffectiveness, it’s better to stand up inconsistently to some atrocities than to acquiesce consistently in them all.” Yes, mass murder by Assad’s and Putin’s forces have continued since Trump’s first strike last year, but medium-to-larger scale nerve gas attacks ceased for a year and the mass murder continued in other ways, that hardly means that future strikes won’t constrain the violence and give these mass murderers pause. Even just some pausing could the difference between life and death for many helpless Syrian civilians.
See related article by same author: Grading Obama’s Middle East Strategy II: Syria’s Civil War
© 2018 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome
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