President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base that was allegedly the launching point of a sarin attack on a town in the Idlib Governate. My initial take is like Tim Newman’s: although the inhumanity in Syria beggars description, getting involved there is foolish and will not end well.
The Syrian conflict is terrible, but Syria makes the snake pit in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom look hospitable.
Further, the politics of Syria (both internally, and in the region) make the intrigues of Game of Thrones seem like child’s play by comparison. So I agree with Tim:
Every course of action I can think of other than “fuck ’em” has an almost zero chance of succeeding in its aims and a very high chance of making things worse.
. . . .
It’s not through moral principle that I am saying this, it is from practicality based on fourteen years of recent, bloody experience: Assad is a monster, the Russian government is showing the world exactly what they are like by backing him, and the Syrian people are suffering terribly, but there is nothing – nothing – we can do about it. It is a terrible indictment on the state of the world, but a policy of “fuck the lot of ’em” is the only workable one on the table right now. It’s high time our leaders started taking it seriously.
To put it slightly differently. Good intentions mean nothing. Results and consequences do. I am at a loss to think of any policy with results and consequences that accord with good intentions. Indeed, it almost inevitable that any major military intervention would not save Syrian lives but would cost American ones.
Truth be told, given the devastation wreaked on children, women, and men in Syria by bombs, shells, small arms and even throat-slashing blades, chemical weapons do not represent a quantum shift in the horribleness of the Syrian war. Dead is dead, and periodic use of chemical weapons does not materially affect the amount of dying that is going on. Assad–and the Islamists he is fighting–have killed and maimed far more innocent civilians with conventional weapons than with chemical ones. The use of chemical weapons does not represent a fundamental shift in the nature of the war, which was already a total war waged without restraint against civilians by all sides (would that there were only two sides in Syria).
Insofar as Trump’s action is concerned, it is best characterized as a punitive strike. And as punitive strikes go, it is modest. It bears more similarity to Clinton strikes in Iraq (e.g., Desert Fox) than Reagan’s Operation El Dorado Canyon in 1986, which put the fear of god into Gaddafi: a 2000 pound bomb dropped near one’s tent has a tendency to do that. In contrast, Thursday’s Tomahawk detonations wouldn’t have disturbed Assad’s sleep in the slightest, let alone put him in mortal danger.
The record of such punitive actions in curbing the misbehavior of bad actors like Saddam or even Gaddafi is hardly encouraging, but at least the downside (to the US) of such indulgences of the Jupiter Complex is rather limited. The concern is that the raid turns out to be ineffectual in moderating Assad’s behavior and leads to Trump to escalate, and to make regime change–rather than a change of regime behavior–the objective. The neocons are celebrating and baying for more: that should be a cause for serious concern.
And I don’t think that this was exclusively about Syria, or even primarily so. The Tomahawks might have landed in Syria, but in a very real sense they were aimed at North Korea. It is significant that Trump launched the attack while Chinese premier Xi was still digesting the steak he had eaten with the president.
Russia is clearly processing the message. The Russians are obviously angered. One would think that this puts paid to the Trump is Putin’s bitch narrative. But that would assume sanity on the part of the left and the Never Trumpers, who are anything but sane.
The prospects for some rapprochement between the US and Russia were already on life support, now they appear to be dead and buried. This reinforces a point I’ve made for months: that if Putin really did think that a Trump presidency would be better for him than a Clinton one, he made a grave miscalculation. This event proves that Trump is predictably unpredictable, and that he is completely capable of a volte face at a moment’s notice. The word I used was “protean”, and the decision to fire off a barrage of cruise missiles after months-years, in fact-of criticizing the idea of American intervention in Syria is about as protean as you get.
This points to a broader message. For all his alleged tactical acumen, Putin has stumbled from one strategic blunder to another. It is highly unlikely that Russian involvement, whatever it was, materially impacted the US election: its impact has been exaggerated for purely partisan and psychological reasons. It is also highly unlikely that any Russian meddling in European elections will sway them in favor of pro-Putin candidates.
But Russia has paid a steep price for these equivocal gains: Russian actions have created political firestorms not just in the US but in Europe that have actually increased Russian isolation. Hysteria in America about Russian meddling in US politics is vastly overblown, and has been ginned up for partisan reasons, but that is irrelevant as a practical matter: it has made the US-Russia relationship more adversarial than it has been since the height of the Cold War, and that works to Russia’s detriment.
His support for Assad in Syria has had similar effects. Yes, Putin achieved his immediate objective: Assad has survived, and looks likely to prevail. But Russia has only cemented its pariah status. The chemical attack makes it even more than a pariah. For what? Syria’s strategic value is minimal.
Indeed, the chemical attack is not just a crime, but a blunder, and puts Putin and Russia in an even worse spot. The action appears so militarily unnecessary and politically counterproductive that like Scott Adams, it raises doubts in my mind as to whether Assad actually ordered it. (The alternative explanations include a rogue general or a false flag carried out by the opposition.) But this is largely irrelevant: Assad is almost universally blamed, and as his stalwart defender, Putin and Russia have been deemed guilty of being accessories to and enablers of what is just as universally considered a war crime. By going all in for Assad, Putin made himself vulnerable to this. (That might provide a Machiavellian motive for Assad’s action: maybe he thought that the chemical attack would bind Putin even more closely to him.)
So by intervening in Syria, and defending Assad even in the aftermath of a widely reviled chemical attack, what has Putin gained? Yes, he had the satisfaction of showing Obama (and in his mind, the US as a whole) to be feckless, all grandiose talk and no action. He could claim to have reversed Russia’s retreat from the Middle East. He could assert that Russia is back and must be reckoned with in world affairs. He apparently experienced great personal satisfaction as a result of these accomplishments.
But viewed more soberly, these gains are more than offset by losses on the other side of the ledger. Russia is isolated, distrusted, feared, and reviled. It’s not entirely fair, but it should have been predictable. Moreover, nothing that Putin has done has improved what the Soviets called the correlation of forces. Indeed, although Russia has rejuvenated its military to some degree, other elements of national power (relative to the US) have slipped since 2008, and a Trump presidency will almost certainly erase the relative change in military power that occurred during Russian rearmament and the American sequester.
The simple fact is that other than in nuclear weapons, Russia cannot compete with the US, let alone the entire west. By achieving limited victories in strategic backwaters like Syria, all Putin has succeeded in doing is goading the US and the west into viewing him as a threat and sparking a competition that he can’t win.
But Putin has staked a great deal on Syria, in terms of both national and personal prestige. He is not the kind of man to back down and lose face after putting down such a stake. For his part, after claiming benign indifference to who rules Syria, the protean Trump has reversed course, and in so doing has put his own reputation on the line over who rules there, or at least how the man who rules there behaves. That is a combustible mix, and I have no idea how it will turn out.
But I am sure of how things will not turn out. Sore election losers’ dystopian fantasy of Trump selling out to Putin will never become reality. In fact, the reverse is more likely. Indeed, this could develop into a reversal of Reagan-Gorbachev. Then, two bitter antagonists found enough common ground to come to an understanding and ratchet down Cold War tensions. Now, two alleged members of a mutual admiration society are likely to find themselves in an increasingly antagonistic relationship, in yet further proof of my axiom that if you want to find the truth, you could do far worse than to invert elite conventional wisdom.