‘Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
That was how an American president announced apparently imminent military action against Syria — a country shot through with foreign soldiers, shattered by a civil war that’s claimed a half-million lives, and at center court of an international power struggle among Russia, Turkey, Iran, Israel, and the United States.
Never has an American president treated potential war with a nuclear power so flippantly. Call it the “Twitter Doctrine,” equal parts bluster and bellicosity.
“The state of things in the world cannot but provoke concern,” President Vladimir Putin of Russia told a group of diplomats at the Kremlin shortly after Trump’s tweet. No argument here.
This is what happens when guardrails like domestic oversight, checks and balances, and international norms are abandoned.
Twin failures of leadership in Washington have contributed to the current crisis. Congress has not approved military action against Bashar al-Assad’s military, so the president has no constitutional authority to wage it. (Asked by the Obama White House to approve military action against Syria in 2013 after a chemical weapons attack, Congress refused.) Nor has the current White House articulated a larger Syrian strategy or how an attack now would fit into it.
Americans should demand both immediately.
Going to war without a plan for a conflict and its aftermath is the height of folly — a lesson that the United States should have learned by now. That’s all the more concerning as President Trump takes a hard swing at the world’s most active hornets’ nest, where a civil war is winding down and another far more dangerous regional conflict looms large.
The proximate cause of the threatened US strike — a chemical attack that killed more than 40 civilians in Douma, a suburb of Damascus — is under investigation. Russian officials and the Syrian Red Crescent at the scene say they found no evidence that chemical weapons were used, despite claims by rebel groups and Western governments that chlorine gas was responsible for the deaths.
The World Health Organization has yet to confirm the use of chemical weapons, though it estimated that 500 people in Douma went to health facilities with symptoms consistent with toxic exposure last weekend. Douma is at least the sixth alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria since the New Year.
Deterrence has a value, especially around the use of chemical weapons. Syria, Russia, and North Korea have all used them in the past two years alone. It is clear that the costs of using them are outweighed by whatever perverse reputational gains are accrued by flouting international law.
At another time, in another place, the issue of weapons of mass destruction would be treated differently. But the past holds a forceful thumb on the scale of the present: The new White House national security advisor, John Bolton, was one of the architects of the Iraq War, launched on the false assertion that a Middle Eastern despot had a large and growing arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. The chaos the Iraq War unleashed in the region, including the birth of the Islamic State in American detention camps, continues to metastasize with horrific consequences.
What the United States lacks in regional credibility, it makes up for in logistics. There are more than enough ships in the region for Trump to deliver a powerful punch against any of the players in the conflict at the time and place of his choosing.
But those strikes won’t make much of a difference: A missile barrage Trump ordered last year, after a suspected chemical weapons attack, neither damaged nor deterred the Syrian military.
The reason the 2017 attacks were both telegraphed (a practice that Trump heavily criticized his predecessor for) and very limited was to avoid killing Russian or Iranian advisors, who are often co-located with the Syrian military.
So Washington faces a paradox of its own making. Limited strikes may make future threats of force less credible. But a sustained campaign targeting a range of Syrian military assets runs the serious risk of escalation with Moscow, a nuclear power. This risk stems from two places — the potential Russian casualties and the loss of Russian prestige. After all, what good is an alliance with a strong power if it can’t protect the weaker partner?
But war with Russia is only one of the nightmare scenarios that Trump risks triggering after years of low-level involvement in the Syrian implosion. No wonder the president told his senior advisors that he wanted to pull US troops out of Syria entirely. “Let the other people take care of it now,” Trump said at the end of March.
A day after the Douma attack, Israel launched an air strike on a Syrian air base, which reportedly killed more than a dozen, including several Iranian military personnel. Iranian officials announced that they would retaliate. Israel doesn’t comment on its operations in Syria, so it is unclear whether the strike was related to the purported chemical weapons attack.
Whether it was or not, tensions between Tel Aviv and Tehran couldn’t be higher as they wage their own war within war. As the Syrian conflict has ground on, Iran has extended its regional networks of militias from its own territory to the Mediterranean, forming the rickety land bridge it has long sought. That’s led the Israelis to conduct more than 100 air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. Those operations are not without risks — an Israeli F-16 fighter jet was shot down by Syrian air defenses in February, the first downed Israeli plane in decades.
Looming over all this, a May 12 deadline is fast approaching to decide the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, with hawks like Bolton and others in the Trump administration pushing for abandoning it.
The risks of full-on regional war in the Middle East have always appeared dangerous and distant. That’s no longer theoretical. It fact, it might be well under way.