Indecision Over Syria Creates More Problems, Not Less

BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT

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There have been some very interesting developments in the last 48 hours. As I wrote previously, the United States is set to engage in a proportional military response to Syrian strongman, Bashar al-Assad’s recent chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma. Last year around this time, President Trump engaged in a similar type of proportional military response to another purportedly Assad-backed chemical weapons attack. To be sure, that action, coupled with the continued presence of American fighting forces in Syria, likely kept Assad from replicating that attack. However, when President Trump publicly ruminated in West Virginia two weeks ago that he’d like to pull the 2,200 American troops out of Syria (now that we had effectively destroyed the ISIS threat they were sent into eliminate), Assad rapidly responded by escalating his activity in the ongoing Syrian Civil War–likely believing that he could now act with impunity, as the Yanks were going home. But, as is often the case with Bashar (his older brother, Basel, was always the preferred strongman replacement for their father–the founder of the Assad Regime–Hafez), he miscalculated. Now, the Western coalition is preparing to retaliate against Assad for his misuse of chemical weapons in Douma (well, maybe).

Yet, a repeat of last year’s cruise missile strike might not be sufficient. To be sure, any retaliation against Assad will involve a cruise missile strike. But, it is essential to ensure that the response is more robust and with many more allied actors. In the aftermath of the Douma chemical weapons attack, Israel struck deep into Syria, and obliterated a known Iranian airbase that was the site of Iranian drones which had recently penetrated Israeli airspace. The attack killed at least three Iranian troops–including the senior-most Iranian military officer operating in Syria. It was since discovered that Israel alerted the Russians of their pending attack shortly before launching it over the deconfliction line (which is meant to prevent great power casualties, since so many different states are operating so close to one another, with competing objectives in the Syrian Civil War). For their part, the Israelis claim that that base was not only the site of drone missions into Israel, but it was also being used as a weapons transfer point to hand sophisticated systems from Iranian forces to Hezbollah elements (Hezbollah, of course, is the Iranian-backed Shiite terror group based mostly in Lebanon, at war with Israel).

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A Twitter picture of the destroyed Iranian base near Homs in Syria, known only as T4.
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A satellite image of the Iranian military base near Homs in Syria, known only as T4.

I do not believe that this was an isolated act by Israel. I think that this attack was the opening shot of a U.S. coalition-wide retaliation against Assad, as well as his Iranian and Russian partners. Within 24 hours thereafter, news came in that the British had moved a submarine within missile striking range of Syria. A French frigate was moved into missile striking range as well. Meanwhile, the United States has no aircraft carrier presently in the region, meaning that if it wants to do more than a replication of last year’s cruise missile strikes–say, manned warplane bombings of Syrian airbases–it is going to have to pull other assets from around the region. Not to worry, though, the United States has many assets in-region that could pummel Assad’s targets.

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Despite not having an aircraft carrier nearby, the United States has at least two guided-missile destroyers operating in the Mediterranean (the same vessels that launched last year’s cruise missile volley at Syria). More importantly, however, it has a retinue of air capabilities in Qatar, Jordan, and Turkey–including the F-22 Raptor–that are more than sufficient to accomplish the strike in question.

The Russians, for their part, have several assets in the region. They have some naval forces operating in support of Bashar al-Assad. Russia has warplanes in Syria as well. The Syrians also possess the powerful Russian-built S-400 air defense batteries, which are believed to be capable of tracking–and shooting down–advanced stealth planes, like the F-35 and F-22 (though this remains untested). However, American war planners insist that a massive swarm attack can overwhelm the untested Russian-built defenses, and the coalition can effectively neutralize Assad’s Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF), which is what most assume will be the target.

Great concern has understandably been expressed regarding how the Russians will respond. We should be cognizant that this will be viewed in Moscow as an escalation (even though it is not). Although, the Russians can do little in Syria to prevent a coalition counterattack. Last month, for instance, a small cadre of American special forces operators–embedded with the gallant Syrian Kurds (the YPG) fighting near Deir ez-Zor–annihilated a large force of Russian soldiers (or, excuse me, “private military contractors”) that attempted to attack them. It was so brutal that the Russians slowed their advance in that part of the strategically vital Deir ez-Zor and then, the Kremlin intervened directly to prevent what they knew would have been another failed attack against the American position several weeks later. Fact is, the Russians will bluster, but they will not retaliate significantly against the United States in Syria (simply because they cannot; they don’t have enough assets to do much in the form of direct retaliation). More recently, we know that the Russians attempted to jam the GPS of American drones operating in Syria. While they did disrupt the operation of those craft, it was nowhere near significant enough to even slow American activity in Syria.

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Further, in the last two days, as British and French ships and submarines have moved into striking range of Syria, the Russians have begun freaking out on them. Russian warplanes buzzed a French Frigate two days ago and the Russians are making threats against British subs. This is a classic Russian tactic when they’re up-against-a-wall with the West: they place pressure on the European components of the Western alliance, hoping to cleave their support away from the United States, thereby isolating the Americans, and slowing their ability to influence a situation that Russia deems vital to their national interests. The Russians did this in the aftermath of their invasion of Georgia in 2008, as well as following their illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. In both cases, they preyed upon the fears of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, and got them to take charge of the resolution–boxing out the United States–and, because of those actions, the Europeans effectively folded on key issues that Russia needed the West to cede to them in both Georgia and Ukraine. Thus far, it seems that this is not happening in Syria–yet.

The Russians are behaving spastically, I believe, because they know how limited their abilities are in Syria. However, make no mistake, the Russians have other means of retaliating. What happens in Syria will not remain isolated there. I’d expect retaliation in the form of cyber warfare; increased aid to both Iran and North Korea; complicating actions potentially with Russian assistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan; an attempt to fully bring Belarus under its dominion in an attempt to prepare for a larger move against the Baltic States (Russian forces will then be on the border of Poland). Russia will respond, but their response will be diluted away from Syria and impact much of the rest of the world. And, the Russians will take their sweet time. We’ll likely be paying for this necessary (though painful) punitive strike against Assad for the next two years. Plus, it doesn’t help that a toxic wave of Russophobia is washing across the political elite in Washington, D.C. presently (and has been since The Donald won election in 2016).

Regarding European cohesion, it’s very telling that now France’s President Emmanuel Macron is claiming to have verifiable evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s military did, indeed, conduct the chemical weapons attack last weekend in Douma. Macron claims that he is weighing his options and attempting to work with allies as to what would be the best response for the region. As for President Trump, despite his tweet following the attack, it would appear that Mr. Trump is rescinding his previous commitment to striking against Assad. Earlier today, the president tweeted:

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The president has waited longer to respond to the Douma chemical weapons attack than he did in last year’s chemical weapons attack. Of course, Secretary of Defense James Mattis maintains that there is no verifiable proof that Assad used Sarin gas last April. But, being able to verifiably attribute the use of chemical weapons in an active, civil war setting, like Syria, will be virtually impossible. Although, four weeks ago, Secretary Mattis was explicit that the United States would retaliate if Assad used chemical weapons against his own people the way he did last April. So, clearly, there is a working assumption among the Trump national security team that, in fact, Assad conducted these attacks.

Yet, given our knowledge of previous attacks, of the fact that whatever rudimentary systems ISIS and other jihadist groups have access to, their makeshift chemical weapons are in no way as effective as Assad’s are. There are, unfortunately, strategic reasons for Assad having used the weapons that he is suspected of having deployed in Douma: the suburb is controlled by rebels (read, jihadists), and many of the jihadists take refuge underground in basements. The chlorine bombs used dispersed over the suburb, sat atop the area, and the chemicals seeped underground. This is why so many families, who had taken refuge in bomb shelters and basements, were found suffocated to death en masse.

Plus, after President Trump’s claims that he wanted to draw down in Syria, Assad took that as a sign that he could escalate, signal to his people that they will be punished for their impudence, and engaged in such reckless behavior. With the president now tweeting his uncertainty over responding to Assad, he is sending the same message of weakness and indecisiveness to our allies–and enemies–that President Obama previously did in 2013 with his idiotic “red line” remark. He has boxed himself in a corner. While we must continue working to prove that Assad launched the attack, the fact is, there is a quasi-statute of limitations on when the coalition can retaliate. By week’s end, we will have passed it. And, keep in mind, that we will likely never be able to prove with certainty who launched the attack–only that an attack was launched. Also, the amount of time that has passed from the initial chemical weapons attack and now, has only given the Assad Regime (and their Russian backers) time to move critical assets away from suspected targets of American counterattack, thereby neutering the efficacy of any coalition strike.

The idea that the United States would not retaliate against Assad is disturbing, because it sends a signal to the Israelis and our Sunni Arab partners that we really don’t have a backbone when dealing with Iran (which is what this is really all about). It will force them to take a hard look at whether they will stick their proverbial necks out for us in fighting to maintain a regional order that favors American preferences over those of the Russians and Chinese. We can–and should–draw down most of our 2,200 men in Syria. But, we should also strike back at Assad’s forces for conducting the chemical weapons attack. We cannot encourage, or appear to be encouraging, the use of WMD in such an unstable world. It sets a bad precedent and sends mixed signals to our allies, and also signals to North Korea that we really aren’t serious about upholding non-proliferation policies.

 

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