BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
In the aftermath of the Trump Administration’s cruise missile strike against Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria, the world seems to have erupted in a confused response. For much of the world (particularly our allies), they celebrated the decision as a return of America’s moral leadership. For many, however, there was grave consternation about the slippery slope to regime change that such actions would move us toward.
First, it would behoove all of us to acknowledge that the concerns about repeating the Iraq War are, for the most part, legitimate. But, for too long the world has feared another Iraq War and lamented the actual Iraq War without fully understanding the historical context in which “Bush’s War” took place. Indeed, as with most things, context is king.
What this post will endeavor to achieve is to cut through the miasma of #FakeNews surrounding the Trump Administration’s air strike in Syria, and explain why Assad is not our friend (or a trustworthy partner in the Global War on Terror). In part two of this post, I will endeavor to cut through the distortions and lies surrounding the Iraq War, in order to provide greater context. In so doing, it is my hope that we can move forward and engage in a healthier civic discourse (though, I’m not holding my breath). After all, the Iraq War was ultimately a bad idea from a strategic point of view. It would be an equally boneheaded move to invade Syria to topple Assad. However, the reasons why both the Iraq War and any proposed invasion of Syria are bad ideas may be dissimilar from what the popular narratives on the two subjects are.
As a brief aside, for the purposes of being fair, I would like you to know that I fully supported the Trump Administration’s cruise missile strike.
Anyway, let’s just stipulate the facts, shall we?
PART I. SYRIA
Fact #1: Assad did gas his own citizens.
Once the surprise of the Trump Administration’s attack on Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria wore off, President Trump’s opponents sprung into action. In particular, his opponents in the Kremlin (yes, you read that right) kicked their disinformatziya operations into high gear. It is from Kremlin-backed sources of #FakeNews that many have been misled into believing that the Sarin nerve gas attack upon Syrian civilians (the inciting incident for the Trump cruise missile strike) was, in fact, a “false flag” operation.
According to this theory, Bashar al-Assad was poised to win the devastating civil war in Syria. He had Russia and Iran backing his play on one side (with Turkey taking a step back from the conflict). And, on the other end, under Trump, he had the United States and its coalition forming up against the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (and other jihadist groups) in both Syria and neighboring Iraq. Why on Earth would Assad risk invoking the ire of the U.S. at a time when he needed both Russia and the U.S. using their considerable military power to destroy his enemies?
The answer is simple: Mr. Assad misinterpreted a statement from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as a statement of support for the Assad regime. From this statement, Assad surmised that he could end the destructive civil war in rapid succession by proving to his foes that he could act with impunity. He seriously misread the situation.
Interestingly, there is a similar event that occurred between Saddam Hussein and the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie. In 1990, Glaspie and Saddam met to discuss Iraq’s rising tensions with its Kuwaiti neighbor. During the conversation, Saddam misread Glaspie’s ambivalent response to Saddam’s statement about Iraq regaining its honor from neighboring Kuwait (the Kuwaitis had been illegally slant drilling–essentially stealing Iraqi oil for some time, having a negative impact on Iraq’s tenuous economy) as implicit permission from the U.S. to, in fact, annex Kuwait. Of course, it is unfair to lay the blame for Desert Storm at the feet of a lone, faceless American diplomat. And, to be sure, other U.S. government pronouncements added to Saddam’s misinterpretation in the months leading up to his annexation of Kuwait. However, Glaspie’s comments cannot be overlooked. They were among one of the compelling reasons for Saddam’s decision to take Kuwait.
Or, as renowned international relations scholar, Stephen M. Walt wrote in 2003:
“In a now famous interview with the Iraqi leader, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam, ‘[W]e have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.’ The U.S. State Department had earlier told Saddam that Washington had ‘no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.’ The United States may not have intended to give Iraq a green light, but that is effectively what it did.”
Similar questions could have been raised at the time as to why on Earth Saddam would have acted so foolishly against America? After all, Saddam was essentially an American client going back to the 1980s. All he really had to do was to lay low and not upset the apple cart too much and he would have likely been given whatever he wanted. However, his own insatiable lust for power, the fact that he had an axe to grind with the Kuwaitis, as well as the fact that he had to rebuild his country’s economy following the devastating Iran-Iraq War, and, lastly, the fact that the U.S. seemed to imply its acceptance of an Iraqi-dominated Middle East all led to a great misstep on the part of Saddam Hussein.
The point here is that it is fairly common that American diplomats misstate or do not fully convey America’s intentions to the rest of the world. This, then, creates serious imbroglios of the sort we saw with Assad’s chemical weapons attack earlier last week. And, I would dare argue that such an inability to correctly interpret American intentions explains why Assad felt comfortable doing his initial chemical weapons attack in 2013. Assad likely disbelieved that former President Barack Obama would ever take military action against his regime.
In that regard, Assad ended up being right. Where he erred was believing that Obama’s inaction was indicative of an overall lack of will across the American political spectrum.
Now, in both the case of the 2013 Assad chemical weapons attack and the recent one in 2017, many are attempting to buttress the (erroneous) claim the chemical weapons attack was a false flag operation perpetrated by jihadists, in order to goad the U.S. into yet another costly Middle East war. While such a theory may seem plausible to those willing to believe that Bashar al-Assad is incapable of performing such consistent acts of barbarity, the rest of us must be willing to see reason.
There is no evidence to suggest that any other group fighting in Syria has access to those weapons. It was rumored that ISIS got a hold of some in Syria but that was never fully verified. And, if these groups did have access to such WMD, they would have used them against Assad, Israel, and the U.S. by now. While reports surfaced in 2015 that seven makeshift projectiles were fired at Kurdish forces, the weapons did not kill anyone. In fact, independent tests indicated that the weapons were likely rudimentary chlorine gas weapons. But, clearly, ISIS does not have a consistent ability to deploy such weapons and their efficacy is negligible. After all, the Kurds kept fighting and suffered no fatalities. The two chemical weapons attacks in Syria, in 2013 and, later, in 2017, were far more devastating and consistent with a military strike.
We do, however, know that the gas was used. We know that an attack took place. What’s more we were able to track the point of origin for the attack (which was where the Trump Administration fired cruise missiles at). Furthermore, we now know that the Russians lied to the world when they claimed that they had resolved the Syrian chemical weapons issue in 2013. We also know that Assad has a penchant for using chemical weapons against his foes–particularly those foes ensconced in areas populated by civilians. Given the context in which the attack occurred, it should not be that much of a stretch to conclude that Assad likely gassed his own people. What’s more, I believe that it is in America’s interests to discourage the use of WMD whenever it can–particularly by rogue and unstable states, such as Assad’s regime in Syria.
Fact # 2: Assad is not a stalwart counterterrorist.
This has been one of the most pernicious misrepresentations of Bashar al-Assad. Here’s what we know:
Damascus under the Assad regime was a highly progressive and cosmopolitan city (for Middle Eastern standards). And, it is also true that–at times–Bashar Assad’s government shared intelligence on al Qaeda with the U.S. and its partners in the Global War on Terror. But, that does not make Assad a counterterrorist. It makes him a pragmatist. After all, Assad is an Alawite. The Alawites are a subgroup of the Shiites. In Syria, the Alawites are a minority of a minority; they rule through a combination of economic incentives and outright fear. And, because they are of Shia Islam, the majority of Sunnis in the country hate them.
Since al Qaeda, ISIS, Al Nusra, and several other factions fighting against Assad today are Wahhabī and Salafi Sunni terror groups, the two sides are predisposed to dislike each other (which explains why these groups have happily turned their ire on Assad at his moment of weakness). Yet, for years, Bashar Assad allowed Syria to be used as a transition point for al Qaeda terrorists to pass through on their way to killing American G.I.s in Iraq. So, at the same time that Assad was waging ethnic warfare against his unruly Sunni population; at the same moment that he was cherrypicking which intelligence to share with the West about al Qaeda, he was also suborning the proliferation of the Wahhabī threat to the region by allowing them to use Syrian territory as a place from whence to launch attacks against Coalition forces operating in neighboring Iraq.
“I went and met President Bashar al-Assad twice, and presented him with material evidence, documents, satellite pictures, confessions, all sort of evidence that his security forces were involved in active (sic) and transporting jihadist from Syria to Iraq And also, there were training camps with names and locations. He (Assad) was in total denial of that. I remember telling him that this will – in no time – backfire on Syria.” – Former Iraqi national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie in “Enemies of Enemies: The Rise of ISIS.”
This tactic of double-dealing between extremists and the West is not exclusive only to Assad. Indeed, we see it play out throughout the region. The same arguments that many are making about the Assad regime today could just as easily be made for the Pakistani or Saudi regimes. Yet, very often, the same people making such arguments in favor of supporting Assad are the same individuals who balk at the very mention of Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.
In fact, we need look no further than Iran on this issue. As the leading Shiite power, Iran is in a holy war of sorts with its Sunni neighbors. At the same time that Iran is blasting Wahhabī groups in Syria and Iraq, it has allowed al Qaeda to use its territory to transfer personnel and weapons between the Afghanistan and Iraqi war zones. Iranian intelligence services often held senior al Qaeda members in Iran under “house arrest” as a means of preventing them from being killed by the U.S. military in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Assad is no different. Similarly, Iran has also been lending support to the Taliban in recent years, as a means of harming America’s position in neighboring Afghanistan.
So why are so many different Middle Eastern powers, most of whom should be at odds with these terrorist groups, lending critical support to such groups? It is normally because these states are not entirely confident in their ability to fully suppress the jihadists in their countries. In the case of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, large shares of their populations are at the very least sympathetic to many Wahhabī movements. While they do try and crack down on these movements, their crackdowns are haphazard.
In the case of Syria and Iran: it’s because these groups are enemies of their enemy, the United States (and Israel). Also, much like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the logic of these governments is that by diverting the jihadists’ ire away from their own regimes and toward America and Israel, they can basically prevent attacks from happening against their homelands.
Fact #3: Keeping Assad In Place Does Not Mean That Jihadists Will Continue to persist in Syria.
This is something that everyone must keep in mind when talking with Americans who agree with Senator John McCain (R-AZ). Indeed, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) recently stated that if America was serious about defeating ISIS in Syria, we’d have to naturally take out Assad, since Assad being in power is the impetus for ISIS existing in the first place. This is a patently absurd claim. The two exist side-by-side, but they are wholly separate issues. One can indeed exist without the other.
After the 9/11 Attacks, the Bush Administration convinced itself that the only way it could defeat al Qaeda was by waging war against “state sponsors of terrorism.” Such a goal is admirable and, actually, somewhat doable (although at great cost).
However, is it practical?
Most assuredly not.
When America invaded Iraq in 2003, part of the reasoning was predicated on the idea that by “draining the swamp” (as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once quipped about the Mideast), the U.S. could remove the reasons for people becoming jihadists. By using preemptive force to regime change and rebuild the countries in question into democratic capitalist states, the Democratic Globalists believed that they could defeat Terrorism.
“Terrorists do not function in a vacuum. They don’t live in Antarctica. They work, they train and they plan in countries. And they’re benefiting from the support of governments…that are either actively supporting them with money, intelligence and weapons or allowing them to function on their territory and tolerating — if not encouraging — their activities. The U.S. must go after terrorists by moving to drain the swamp they live in.” – Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 18 September 2001.
Thus, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that those who believe as Democratic Globalists (a.k.a. “Neocons”) do would firmly believe that the path to victory over ISIS in Syria lies in the toppling of Assad. This is not the case. Don’t fall for such bizarre logic, please. In fact, there can be little doubt, that removing the dictator will likely result in those lands being consumed by either another round inter-communal warfare or will simply be conquered by Islamists, like what happened in Egypt.
Democratic Globalists tend to place great value in the nature of regimes. So do I. I rarely trust autocracies as far as I can throw them (though I am more inclined to trust autocrats, such as Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, than totalitarians, such as Ayatollah Khameini of Iran). However, that does not mean that I am willing use American force in some quixotic endeavor to rid the world of all tyranny. Such a move would not only deplete America of her human, financial, and military reserves, but it would also, as John Adams cautioned, turn America into the “dictactress of the world” as we sought out new foreign monsters to destroy.
Fact #4: No regime is safe from Wahhabī extremists.
Even though Assad gave tacit support to Wahhabī terrorist networks in his own country, the Assad regime was never fully protected from their wrath. Jihadists utilize terror techniques because they are otherwise impotent in the face of traditional military forces. Thus, they tend to take the path of least resistance whenever it opens up. When they were nominally aligned with Assad, it was due to the fact that their interests were fused: they wanted to use Syrian territory (and Syrian Sunnis) as the vanguard forces in their jihad against the “infidel” crusaders in Iraq.
Not only had Bashar al-Assad been suppressing Sunni resistance groups in places like the Sunni stronghold of Hama (Assad had been a particularly strong adversary to the Muslim Brotherhood operating out of Hama), but his father, Hafez, was just as vicious to the Sunnis who dared challenge the Assad’s rule. Indeed, in the 1980’s Hafez Assad suppressed a Sunni rebellion out of Hama by leveling the city and massacring upwards of 17,000 men, women, and children.
The thing about the Middle East that we must remember is that history drives this region (something that we, as Americans, cannot simply fathom). Also, the politics of the region is predicated on the notion of the “stronger horse,” (whoever possesses the power to kill their adversaries will dictate the course of events). Another concept anathema to most Americans is that sworn enemies will gladly align to fight larger foes (i.e. Israel and the West). These principles can never be forgotten when dealing with Middle Eastern powers.
So, when people scratch their heads when reading this as to why the jihadists turned on Assad the answer is simple: following the 2011 uprisings, after former U.S. President Barack Obama had decreed “Assad must go,” the jihadi networks operating in Syria’s Sunni regions kicked into high-gear. They assumed, going off of recent history in Iraq, Libya, and Egypt, that once the Obama Administration called for regime change that it would topple the Assad regime and allow for a power vacuum to form in Syria. Out of that vacuum, the jihadists would swoop in and take much-needed territory from whence to build their Caliphate (this explains why the Institute of World Politics’ Dr. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz insists upon calling jihadists “Caliphatists”).
The jihadists are never to be trusted. They will turn on anyone. Remember: al Qaeda was predominantly Saudi movement. Deriving from the old Mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan War, al Qaeda was funded and supported by the Saudis (when they were the Mujahideen fighting the Reds). Yet, as soon as that conflict ended, they turned on the Saudis and plotted to return to their homes in Saudi Arabia and overthrow the “apostate” House of Saud. As Steve Coll documents in “Ghost Wars,” Saudi intelligence got wind of this plot and immediately revoked any visas that the jihadists in Afghanistan retained. This only hardened al Qaeda’s desire to return to their homeland and overthrow the government there.
The Taliban are also a predominantly Pakistani-funded organization right now. Pakistan uses the Taliban as a strategic lever against the Indians. Yet, in 2010, the Taliban that had fled from neighboring Afghanistan and found refuge in Pakistan, attempted to take over several Pakistani towns and villages. Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, led the effort from within Pakistan. So, as you can see, not even states who may tacitly support jihadist networks (or at least states from where high-ranking officials and powerful individuals support jihadists come from) are safe. These jihadi networks in Syria have turned on Assad because a) he is an apostate to them, b) he is weak, and c) they need territory to reconstitute the long-dead Caliphate.
Fact #5: Assad is a bastard and he is not our bastard.
This should be an undisputed fact. In the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, the entire Arab world was awash with revolutionary fervor. A democratic wave was supposedly blanketing the entire region in the so-called Arab Spring. However, as we quickly learned, the Arab Spring became an Islamist Winter. Rather than democratic movements rising to power in many of the states affected by the revolutions, Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, took power. Fearing his own regime’s survival, Assad began overreacting to every single potential disturbance.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Assad’s security services sought out a group of pre-teen boys who had scribbled anti-regime graffiti on public property. They rounded the boys up, brutally tortured them, and then murdered them. This, more than anything, activated the Civil War. Had it not been for the early intervention of Iran, then, it is likely that Assad would have fallen to the mounting popular pressure against his reign.
Remember: Assad is an Alawite and the Alawites are a minority of a minority population (Shiites) in Syria. The reason that the Alawites are so firmly backing Assad’s brutality is because they fear what will happen if to them if they lose to the predominantly Sunni jihadist networks fighting against them in the Civil War. It isn’t a simple issue of taking their proverbial ball and going home. For the Alawites, it is likely that they would be ethnically cleansed by any Sunni group taking power from them in the Civil War. Given the decades-long animosity with the U.S., knowing how things turned out even for Arab dictators who were friendly with the West (such as Libya’s Gaddafi), has meant that the Alawites have sought refuge in the arms of Iran and Russia.
“Alawis to the grave, Christians to Beirut!” – A common Sunni protester chant in Syria.
Once it became clear that the Obama Administration would not enforce its “red line” following the Assad regime’s initial chemical weapons attack upon its citizens in 2013, Russia rapidly increased its presence in the Syrian Civil War. Together with the Iranians, the Russians pushed back the opponents of Assad. They started, mind you, not with ISIS and other groups, but with groups aligned with the U.S. (not that all of those rebels were groups that the U.S. should have been supporting). Thus, it should be clear that whenever Assad does manage to defeat his enemies, he will be an even greater shill for the Russo-Iranian alliance that’s been growing in the region over the last 15 years. He will not be a reliable American partner, or a mere neutral in the growing U.S.-Iranian rivalry in the region.
So, while the alternatives to Assad may be worse for the U.S. than Assad’s rule, the continuation of Assad’s regime is pretty awful for American strategic interests in the region. Through Assad, Iran will continue to expand along the Shia Crescent in the region, it will continue to threaten Israel, and it will continue–with Russian assistance–pushing the U.S. away from the Mideast.
Of course, the alternative is likely that Wahhabī insurgents take over and directly threaten both Israel and the U.S. any way, so it’s likely a lose-lose situation. But, everyone supporting the Assad regime in the U.S. should take heed that they are effectively becoming mouthpieces for both Russia and Iran.
The United States cannot dare to repeat its misadventure in Iraq. Yet, at the same time, it must be willing to enforce basic principles that happen to be in its national interests. Namely, the U.S. cannot stand idly by while a rogue regime like Assad routinely gasses his own people. Such a move would only encourage other states in the region (and throughout the world) to mass produce such weapons of mass destruction in order to protect themselves. The failure to respond swiftly to Assad’s wanton use of chemical WMD is a pox on U.S. foreign policy in the sense that it has increased the risk that other states will inevitably freely develop and use their own WMDs in the near future. In a region like the Mideast–the actual crossroads of civilization–this is a very dangerous scenario.
Right now, there is a religious cold war brewing between predominantly Sunni and Shiite states in the Muslim world. This conflict is ethnic and historical. It is not going away. Given the demographic and economic trends in the near term it will intensify and become more dangerous. While the U.S. cannot intervene directly to stop the conflict, it can protect its interests in the region and continue taking the fight to jihadist networks whilst curbing Iranian hegemonic ambitions. One way of doing this is ensuring that no one utilizes WMD in the region.
In terms of regime change: the U.S. will simply not do it. The Trump Administration has already promised this. Following the cruise missile strike, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reaffirmed this position. However, the U.S. could continue to conduct similar low-risk missions against Assad forces that would put pressure on the recalcitrant Russians to place pressure on the ruling Alawites to remove Assad in exchange for the U.S. not removing the Alawites entirely from power (since that would precipitate a genocide).
Stay tuned for Part II on the Iraq War!