Putting three rival governments on notice of potential confrontation in an e-mail from a press secretary and a tweet was unconventional and, in diplomatic circles, borderline bizarre. President Obama issued his “red line” to the Assad regime from the White House lectern while the Bush Administration dispatched Secretary of State Colin Powell to the U.N. Security Council to present its (erroneous) case that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. This time, the statements surprised U.S. officials who are normally in the loop. And it directly contradicted President Trump’s repeated vow not to telegraph what he intends to do militarily to America’s enemies. Envoys of close allies told me that their governments were neither informed of the statements nor consulted.
Even more important, the Administration has not addressed the danger that a proxy war for influence over prime Middle East property could soon become much riskier. Tensions are escalating dangerously in the skies over Syria at a time of deepening uncertainty over whether the Trump Administration has defined a long-term strategy—and at a time when little diplomacy through normal channels seems to be involved.
“We’re lost,” Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, told me. “We don’t know what we’re doing.”
For six years, the Obama Administration deliberately limited U.S. intervention in the multiple conflicts playing out on Syrian battlefields. It stayed on the sidelines of the bigger civil war between dissident militias and the Assad regime, providing small-scale arms and training to the few pro-Western rebels—an initiative that has since atrophied. U.S. intervention expanded with the rise of ISIS, in 2014, but again with a limited mandate: defeating the extremist movement. Thousands of air strikes and the hundreds of Special Forces soldiers on the ground avoided engagement with the forces of Assad or those of his allies, namely Russia and Iran.
Since April, however, President Trump has widened the scope of U.S. intervention, both in terms of its targets and its message. Its first strike on Syria—fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles fired at an airbase used by Assad’s warplanes to drop chemical weapons on civilians—marked a turning point. The strike initially appeared to be a one-off. No longer.
So far, tensions are playing out in the air. On June 18th, the U.S. shot down a Syrian warplane, the first direct confrontation between the two countries since 1983, when Syria shot down two U.S. warplanes flying over Lebanon. This time, the roles were reversed. A U.S. Navy fighter downed a Syrian jet shortly after it bombed a U.S.-backed militia, which was fighting to retake the ISIS capital of Raqqa. Syria called the attack “flagrant aggression” reflecting “the evil intentions” of the United States.
The U.S. also shot down two large Iranian-made drones flying over Syria, on June 8th and June 20th. The armed, Shaheed-129 model drones were flying near the southern outpost at al-Tanf, near the Jordanian border, where U.S. and British advisers are supporting a Syrian militia fighting ISIS. Pentagon officials do not know whether Iranian or Syrian officers operated the drones, but Iran has dispatched thousands of forces and advisers to prop up the Assad regime. After the downing of the drones, the Russian Foreign Ministry charged the United States with “open complicity with terrorists.”
En route to Germany on Monday, James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, acknowledged the problems of conflicting air forces, armies, and agendas as U.S.-backed forces (backed up by U.S. Special Forces) move deeper into Syria to defeat ISIS. “You have to play this thing very carefully,” he told reporters. “The closer we get, the more complex it gets.”
In its threat to strike Syria again, the Trump Administration was clearly trying to preëmpt Assad’s use of sarin gas, a colorless and tasteless nerve agent that leads to convulsions, paralysis, respiratory failure, and death. In April, dozens died and hundreds were injured when bombs loaded with sarin were dropped in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, in the rebel-held northern Idlib Province. Since the civil war began, in 2011, the Syrian government has used various chemical weapons a dozen times, according to a time line by the Arms Control Association.
The Pentagon said on Tuesday that it had seen movement of personnel and equipment over the past two weeks at Al Shayrat, the same airbase where the chemical-weapons attack strike had been launched in April. “These activities are similar to what we observed prior to the regime chemical-weapons attack against Khan Sheikhoun,” Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway told me.
But, five months into his Presidency, Trump has done little to clarify his Administration’s strategy in Syria—and to explain how it is different from the Obama policy that Trump so harshly condemned as a candidate. Diplomats and foreign-policy analysts pointed out that Monday night’s e-mail statement from the White House sounded much like the language Obama used in drawing a “red line” on the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. The main difference is that Obama opted for diplomacy after both Congress and the British government balked at resolutions endorsing possible military action. Trump made little effort to cultivate either before acting.
The confrontational tenor of the latest U.S. warning was dismissed in Damascus, where the media showed a video of President Assad climbing into the cockpit of a SU-35 fighter jet at a western airfield used by Russia. He was accompanied on a tour of the base by the Russian Army’s chief of staff, General Valery Gerasimov. A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Washington’s warning was “unacceptable”; Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted that it was based on a “fake pretext.”
The various conflicts inside Syria now look like “a scramble to grab land” that pits a flailing government, hundreds of disparate militias, a handful of disproportionately powerful extremist groups, regional governments, and international powers against each other, according to Joshua Landis. Much of the action is now focussed on eastern Syria and along the Euphrates River Valley, as well as in northern Idlib Province—where an Al Qaeda offshoot is most active—and the south, where the uprising began in 2011. Pity Syria.
Author: Robin Wright