Michael G. Roskin: Who Won in Syria?
Thursday, April 13, 2017 10:18 AM
Our cruise-missile strike on a Syrian airbase was largely inconsequential. Secretary of State Tillerson got nowhere in Moscow. With angry words, Russia still backs Syria. A new “presidential” Trump has not emerged. But a net winner did: our ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, who has seized the foreign-policy initiative from Trump and Tillerson. She articulates policy, and in a few days they follow.
Haley, former governor of South Carolina, has been tough from the get-go: “We cannot trust Russia.” She supports NATO, a two-state Israel-Palestine solution, ousting Assad and moral leadership. Almost like Hillary. Maybe women are the only ones ....
Ambassador Haley has cabinet rank, and the White House has not had her walk back one word. She has just become a member of the National Security Council’s principals committee, after Steve Bannon was dropped. Mainstream Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio, favor her positions. At age 45, she has time to consider running for president.
Trump has no strategic plan or goal for the region, and his attack signified little more than his personal horror at images of the Syrian gas attack. Trump got higher approval ratings, media acclaim, bipartisan congressional support, relieved allies (especially in the Persian Gulf), hope for the civilian victims of Assad’s war and proof that he is not under Russia’s thumb. Aside from the last, none of these will likely last.
The Russians deserve blame for letting Syria keep nerve gas. Moscow, swearing that Syria gave up all its chemical weapons under a Russian-brokered deal in 2014, allowed the use of sarin gas against children. On that small Syrian airbase, Russian personnel surely knew and saw it being loaded by crews in hazmat suits. The Russian coverup may have finally disabused Trump of the mirage of a “deal” with Putin.
In Syria, the war continues, perhaps without poison gas but still targeting civilians. Damascus and Moscow calculate their interests are much bigger than Trump’s: For Assad, regime (and perhaps personal) survival; for Putin, a Russian return to the Mideast that gives him naval and air bases. They see no comparable incentives for Trump and no American follow-through actions.
Trump’s missile strike brought relief from his rancorous first months in office. Deflecting attention abroad from domestic trouble is an old temptation. But some Trump supporters ask if he is turning from America First to Syria First, and Congress, as in 2013, is disinclined to authorize a new Mideast war. Congressional authorizations to use military force (AUMF) from 2001 and 2002 (Afghanistan and Iraq) cannot be stretched to cover Syria. Aside from destroying ISIS, Trump indicated we shouldn’t get much involved in the Middle East.
In international law, poison gas is illegal, period. Trump could slam that home — but probably won’t — with further strikes to crack open suspected chemical bunkers. Gas plumes would prove that Syria really is culpable, something Moscow denies, implausibly blaming an Al Qaeda lab.
Trump could establish secure or protected zones, urged for years but not so easy. We would have to shoot attacking Syrian and/or Russian aircraft and ground forces. If we support Kurds in these zones, a furious Turkey might deny us use of vital Incirlik air base. We would fight not only ISIS but the enemy of ISIS, plunging us into a two-front war.
Some argue that last week’s strike gives us the “credibility” to make other adversaries back down. Unsupported by evidence. Trump informed Xi Jinping of the strike, but China and North Korea scorned it. Beijing is reportedly delighted, figuring: With the Americans bogged down even worse in the Middle East, China can do as it wishes in the South China Sea. The U.S. has conducted no Freedom of Navigation operation there since last May.
The Mideast is pregnant with major conflict. Trump’s action could accelerate a Sunni-Shia showdown that has been building for years, led respectively by Saudi Arabia and Iran. They already fight in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The Russians have tied themselves to the Shias, a small minority of the world’s Muslims, while we are signed up to fight on the Sunni side.
The conflict will not stay confined to Syria. North Caucasus and Central Asian Sunnis turn to terrorism inside Russia to oppose Putin’s war on Syrian Sunnis. Some have joined ISIS.
An estimated 8,000 Lebanese Hezbollah fight in Syria for Assad. If Damascus transfers nerve gas to Hezbollah, Israel could go nuclear. In the 1991 Gulf War the world feared Saddam would hurl chemical-warhead missiles at Israel. The U.S. talked Israel into recalling jets — believed to be carrying nukes — headed toward Iraq. The next time Israel would target Iran, and Gulf Arab states would happily refuel Israeli bombers.
So who’s smart and agile enough to handle these complexities? Trump, Tillerson and Haley are all neophytes in foreign policy, but Haley learns much faster. (And as for Spicer ...) Maybe both parties will field women candidates for president.