Streetwise Professor

April 9, 2017

Down the Syrian Rabbit Hole

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:15 pm

The Syria story has many threads. I’ll address a few of them here.

First, to follow on Ex-Regulator’s comment: Trump’s initial public justification for the strike–the humanitarian impulse stirred by pictures of dying children–is deeply troubling. Sentimentality is a poor basis for policy. In particular, it has no limiting principle. If you take a tragic view of humanity–if you view mankind as fallen and flawed–you know that there is a virtually unending supply of sad, heartbreaking, stories. So how does a president choose which appeal to answer? And how do people know which appeals he will answer? Truth is, we have no idea. The line will be arbitrary, which leads to unpredictable, inconsistent policy.

Further, as Ex-Reg notes, by emphasizing his susceptibility to sentimentality, Trump makes himself a target for manipulation. These manipulations are likely to include false flags whereby those attempting to get the US to intervene on their side create an outrage to pin on their opponents: it cannot be precluded that this occurred in Syria last week.

Second, in subsequent remarks by others than Trump, the administration has downplayed the humanitarian aspect, and emphasized the signaling motivation. Moreover, it has explicitly stated that the signal was not directed at Assad alone, or even Putin and Assad, but also at Kim Jung Un and the Chinese.

My concern here is the Rolling Thunder problem: the signal that you think you are sending through a limited use of force is not necessarily the signal that your intended audience hears. What happened in Vietnam during the Johnson years was that graduated escalation was interpreted by Ho Chi Minh et al as weakness, and as an unwillingness to take decisive action. Assad or Kim Jung Rolly Poly may conclude that they can easily absorb a strike like the one launched Thursday night, and that Trump may not be willing to go much further. Or, they may conclude that (a) this strike was so modest, (b) Trump is likely to engage in graduated escalation if he escalates at all, and (c) they can absorb much heavier blows. Either way, they could be encouraged, rather than deterred.

Lesson from Vietnam (pun intended): if you want to achieve a decisive outcome, Linebacker trumps Rolling Thunder.

Of course, one reason for Johnson’s reticence in Vietnam was the risk of drawing in the USSR or China. That’s obviously an issue in Syria and North Korea. But if that is the real concern, don’t even start down the road with a limited strike. If you do, eventually you will pull up short and look feckless.

Third, the administration is sending extremely mixed signals. Last week, Tillerson said point blank that regime change was not on the administration’s agenda. This morning, Nikki Haley intimated that it is. Given that no matter how horrid the Assad regime any successor is likely to be as bad or worse, that regime change is even on the table is highly disturbing.

Fourth, assessing whether the chemical attack was a false flag or a regime attack requires an evaluation of the plausibility that Assad would do such a thing. As Dearieme and Ex-Reg note, and as I noted initially, it does not seem rational for Assad to have taken this action. It certainly was not a military necessity. But people like Assad think differently, and there may be some Machiavellian reason for him to take this action.

One is that he, like everyone else, is trying to fathom Trump’s policy, and Trump himself. Therefore, Assad ran a calculated risk to see how Trump would respond to a pretty extreme provocation. As suggested above, he might be pleased with the answer (contrary to DC conventional wisdom).

Another is that he needed to bind Russia and Iran closer to him. Again running a calculated risk that they would stand with him rather than abandon him (for that would call into question their previous policy of support), he launched this attack and forced them to be complicit in a very inflammatory war crime.

Relatedly, one of Assad’s big fears has to be a rapprochement between Russia and the US that would make him expendable. The Russians had guaranteed that he had eliminated chemical weapons. That guarantee is now shown to be inoperative, either due to (as Tillerson said) deliberate deception or incompetence. Regardless, now no deal with the Russians regarding Assad can be considered credible. This reduces the risk that the Russians will be able to cut a deal with Trump that makes Assad expendable.

I have no idea whether these possibilities are realities. I just put them out there to highlight that there can be twisted motives that cause people like Assad to take actions that seem to be against their interest–just as there can be twisted motives for jihadis to kill their own in horrible ways.

Fifth, Occam’s Razor would say that Trump’s attack completely undercuts the narrative that he is Putin’s bitch. But Occam’s Razor is an alien concept in the fever swamps of the left. The certifiably insane (Louise Mensch) and the hyper partisan but supposedly sane (Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Matthews) certain have never shaved with it. They are claiming that this proves Trump is Putin’s bitch! The “reasoning”? He is doing it because the most likely interpretation is that it shows that Trump isn’t Putin’s bitch, so that means that he is! Or something.

In other words, this lot interprets everything that Trump does as evidence of his collusion with the Russians. This means that the hypothesis that he is in collusion with Putin is unfalsifiable, and hence is junk reasoning. It should therefore be rejected, as should anything that those who espouse this theory say.

Lastly, the attack is a complete embarrassment to the Obama administration, which preened and bragged that it had rid the Assad regime of chemical weapons. All of the administration weasels–Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, Colin Kahl among them–have been quick to defend the administration. Although Obama remains silent, their voices were joined by the next most authoritative one–John Kerry–who ranted against the airstrike. He claimed that the Obama administration had accomplished MUCH more without firing so much as a shot, and that Trump’s attack will undermine all of the great progress that had been achieved.

But watch the weasels’ weasel words. They all say that the 2013 agreement eliminated all of Assad’s declared chemical weapons. Um, the criticism of the deal all along was that Assad might have undeclared stocks, and hence might retain a chemical capability despite the deal. It is beyond embarrassing that these people would protest so stridently that their deal was great in the face of an event which most likely shows that it was a complete, and completely predictable, sham.

So is Kerry’s outraged response to the Tomahawk Chop delusional? Chutzpah? I’m going with delusional chutzpah.

It’s almost tax time. So I suggest that you implement the following strategy, and cite the authority of John Kerry as justification. Report 50 percent of your actual income on your 2016 1040. When the IRS comes after you, tell them–in high dudgeon: How dare you! I paid all I owed on my DECLARED income! Good luck! I’ll write you in jail!

The alternative explanation for the chemical attack–a false flag–hardly provides any cover for Obama and the Obamaites because that would mean that the chemical attack was launched by opposition forces that the administration supported. So, either the administration entered into a farcical deal, and was played the fool by Assad, or it was played the fool by anti-Assad forces whom it had supported.

People with any decency would don sackcloth and ashes and plead forgiveness. But we are talking about the Obama administration, so  . . .

Perhaps there will be more clarity on all these issues in coming days and weeks. But I kind of doubt it. Any venture into understanding Syria is a trip down the rabbit hole. And given the depravity of all the actors involved, that’s yet further reason to stay as far away from this mess as is humanly possible.

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  1. This is thorough. I just can’t shake the feeling that it’s a massive pivot by this administration which will inevitably lead to more involvement. Whether it’ll be another attack that’ll do it – false or not – I don’t know. He have up ‘america first’, the idea that we’ll be merciless if you come after us but o.w. we’re not spending blood or treasure. With that wall breached….

    Comment by Dean — April 9, 2017 @ 1:18 pm

  2. Of, if the Versailles on the Potomac absolutely, positively cannot resist going down the rabbit hole, use overwhelming and irresistible force. In Bernard Lewis’ aphorism, get tough or get out. Anyone for Linebacker III on steroids. We’ll always have the B-52s.

    Comment by The Pilot — April 9, 2017 @ 1:43 pm

  3. ‘Relatedly, one of Assad’s big fears has to be a rapprochement between Russia and the US that would make him expendable.’

    There’s a very black irony in the thought that Assad was panicked into a chemical gas attack by Democrat propaganda about Trump being Putin’s puppet.

    Comment by Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — April 9, 2017 @ 2:33 pm

  4. @Super-Regulator–

    1. I apologize for referring to you by your old handle 😛
    2. I had the exact same thought after posting. I think it is quite possible.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 9, 2017 @ 2:47 pm

  5. After reading H.R. McMasters “Dereliction of Duty” re LBJ, McNamara, and the cold war JCS re pre-1968 Vietnam, I feel gradualism is the least likely outcome with him as National Security Advisor.

    Comment by Craig Landon — April 9, 2017 @ 7:39 pm

  6. I think what has mainly happened is exposing what is going on in Syria; Russia will be a red herring if they keep this up, an international pariah, our foe in Iraq, Shia Cleric Sadr has called for Assad to step down. I think a lot of pressure can build up on this without a big bloody conflict. Should it come down to that, I think some ME armies and not us can roll in there with some US air support. We are already there with air support.

    Comment by TC — April 9, 2017 @ 8:02 pm

  7. Isn’t the simplest thesis: Assad did it to test Trump. If he does nothing, the US looks pathetically weak (the failure of Obama to so much as slap Assad’s wrist was the de facto end of his foreign policy influence). However, Assad was covered: if Trump goes HAM, Russia is obligated to step in. It’s writing a covered call given the Russian backstop.

    Trump’s choice was perfect. He saved face without actually doing anything meaningful or making future commitments. If Assad continues gassing civilians, that will be a problem — but it is for Russia as well (who looks unable to control Assad given the previous agreement and complicit in uglier-than-usual warcrimes; a doubly losing proposition), reducing the probability of that path.

    The emotional reaction? I think he understood that standing by idly while that gets broadcast means losing face. It’s like a billionaire throwing $100k to hurricane relief efforts — free good PR, and not doing so means you’re a stingy bastard, and who likes them?

    Comment by FTR — April 9, 2017 @ 8:44 pm

  8. Looks more and more like business as usual (at least it’s not Hillary is the only positive that comes to mind). Better that he watch Mr Smith Goes to Washington rather than news feeds.

    An effective break could be made if willing to follow the Tomahawk Chop with a Fat Man Flop.

    Comment by pahoben — April 10, 2017 @ 3:31 am

  9. Fortunately this rabbit hole ain’t that deep, Professor. Will occupy a few news cycles before THE REAL blockbuster story returns to the fore – Obama staff surveillance of Trump transition team. Makes Watergate look seriously amateur.

    Comment by Geoff C — April 10, 2017 @ 6:39 am

  10. Pilot who dropped sarin bomb which killed 87 Syrians is a General who carried out ANOTHER gas attack last month

    ‘Syrian army chief of staff thanks General Haytham Hasouri for destroying Qaeda’s weapons facilities in Khan Sheikhoun, Edlib.’

    Assad’s regime maintains that it did not drop chemical weapons on Khan Sheikhoun, a farming village near Homs, and says it bombed Jihadi weapons stores which released the deadly nerve agent.

    But experts have rubbished that theory, saying sarin gas would be destroyed by an explosion, rather than dispersed.

    ‘Make America pay’: Iran calls on Syria to ensure Trump ‘regrets his attack’ after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the US ‘will hold to account any who commit crimes against innocents’

    NOTE: “baby milk factory”, anyone?

    Comment by elmer — April 10, 2017 @ 8:22 am

  11. Then again ‘experts” have argued that the photos of “white helmets” handling the bodies shows that sarin was not present. The best policy is to believe no publicly available information..

    I used to rely on people who had – how should I put this? – connections to the Home Office and the security services in Britain. But my contacts have almost all retired.

    Comment by dearieme — April 11, 2017 @ 12:06 pm

  12. What about a military coup angle – not the false flag op. If someone high enough up in the Syrian military wanted Assad out, this would seem like the best way to accomplish.

    Comment by Jeffrey — April 12, 2017 @ 10:09 am

  13. I’m waiting to read about the Carter Page FISA warrant! So far, everything I have read seems to indicate the warrant was renewed even after no evidence surfaced during the first few months of the surveillance.

    Comment by Surya — April 12, 2017 @ 8:06 pm

  14. “…it does not seem rational for Assad to have taken this action.” I don’t know how many times we have been subjected to the obtuseness of this so-called argument explaining why Assad, the Russians and Captain Nemo would have not been so myopic, irrational or crazy to have engaged in one or another line of conduct.

    It’s an obtuse even stupid line of reasoning. One observes in the real world that there are miscommunications, failures in the chain of command and any number of inexplicable acts of foolishness, eccentricity or self-damage from otherwise usually cool, calm, controlled and apparently rational individuals. Maybe these apply and maybe they don’t. You don’t know and neither do I.

    A more productive line of reasoning is as follows. Syria has a proven and documented track record of using chemical weapons dating all the way back to the 1980s (1982 Hama – Assad the dad). Burden of proof must lie with those who – like the Russkies – claim it wuz ISIS wot done it.

    “Occam’s Razor would say that Trump’s attack completely undercuts the narrative that he is Putin’s bitch.” Come on, Prof, you know better than that. Trump has pressure relating to the Russia investigation so he has incentive to go out of his way to demonstrate he is no Putin bitch. Which interpretation is right? Who knows? Maybe Trump himself is not even sure, assuming for the moment he ever engages in self-reflection. Motivation is always and under every condition subject to indeterminacy. Applies to Trump, you, me, everyone. Human condition, you see, and our endless fascination with revisiting, re-elaborating on and reinterpreting the past.

    Comment by Simple Simon — April 15, 2017 @ 1:08 am

  15. Based on actions with no attribution of motivation suggests he is actually the EU’s bitch. Can’t go lower than being a bitch to a feminized nanny state.

    Comment by pahoben — April 20, 2017 @ 7:21 am

  16. But if the French decide to commit cultural suicide by immigration then completely understandable.

    Comment by pahoben — April 23, 2017 @ 9:59 am

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