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Earlier this week, Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad ordered a Sarin gas attack on his purported enemies in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. This attack came on the heels of the Trump Administration signaling that it would be willing to live with the disgusting Assad regime, so long as the U.S. could destroy the Islamic State (and other jihadist networks fighting in Syria) unimpeded.
The attack by Assad placed President Donald Trump in an incredibly awkward position. You see, despite all of his opposition on the campaign trail to the Clinton-Bush-Obama strategy of endless war through nation-building, the image of a young Syrian girl gagging on her own vomit from having been exposed to Sarin nerve gas understandably softens the hearts of the most hardened realists (let alone one of a proud father like Mr. Trump). The attack also proved how utterly unreliable Bashar Assad would be as a “partner” in the war against ISIS.
After all, ISIS is the mutated form of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which was responsible for many countless American servicemen and women’s deaths during the Iraq War. Assad had allowed foreign fighters traveling from around the Muslim world to use his border with Iraq as a point of egress from which to launch attacks against Coalition forces operating in the Sunni Triangle of Iraq. After General Petraeus’ much-ballyhooed surge in 2006, the AQI remnants fled across the border into Syria and laid low.
The Syrian Civil War of 2011 provided the battered shards of AQI a chance to reconstitute and become the hellish force that we know today. This terrorist organization was fomented in the early 2000’s by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and, later, found refuge in Assad’s Syria. It was only when ISIS turned on Assad in the Civil War that Assad became an avowed counter-terrorist. Though, to be sure, he was never truly a friend of Sunni terror groups like ISIS. It is more than likely that Assad sent jihadists over the border into Iraq to keep them off of his streets and to inflict damage onto the United States, which has been a perennial adversary of the Assad regime since the 1970s.
Meanwhile, since the 1980s, the Assad regime found friendship in Shiite-dominated Iran. This makes perfect sense: the Alawite sect that rules Syria is a subgroup of Shia Islam. They’ve ruled predominantly Sunni Arab Syria with an iron fist for decades: offering economic incentives to leading Sunnis in exchange for their support, and solidifying their grip on power through ceaseless state-sponsored terror campaigns directed against their Sunni population. Of course, the Syrian Civil War of 2011 destroyed this arrangement, which is why groups like ISIS found new life in that protracted conflict.
With the Sunnis of Syria mostly against Assad’s rule, the Alawites turned increasingly toward the Iranians. Of course, Iran valued Syria as a strategic asset to continue its own genocidal jihad against Israel. This, coupled with the presence of the predominantly Shiite-led government in Iraq, meant that Iran saw an opportunity to create a Shiite-dominated bloc of states in the Mideast—a clear threat to Israel, the Sunni kingdoms, and the United States (all of whom the Iranians identify as their archrivals).
The increased presence of Iran in the Syrian Civil War exacerbated the Sunni-Shiite divide in that conflict, which allowed both sides to claim that they were fighting a holy war. Iran is closely aligned with Russia. Vladimir Putin was still smarting over America’s air war in Libya (the Obama Administration had promised Putin that it would not seek Gaddafi’s overthrow there) and he was looking to keep America distracted in the aftermath of his annexation of Crimea in 2014. So, Russia moved quickly to buttress Iran’s ongoing effort in support of Assad. Also, the Assad regime had been allied with Russia going back to the Cold War. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia maintained its air base at Latakia and its naval base at Tartarus.
Throughout the region, the United States has seen Russia and Iran act in concert to protect each other’s interests and to establish an anti-American zone of control over the region. Assad’s continued existence only intensifies their grip on power. The Iranian position on Assad is inflexible: they cannot allow him to fall. However, the Russian position is less inflexible. Putin’s interests are thus: prevent the Alawite’s from being overthrown, protect Russian military assets in Syria, and disallow the U.S. from doing to Syria what it did to Iraq and Libya.
When Donald Trump campaigned on his “America First” principle, he did so not because he adhered to the kind of isolationism that defined the group that coined the name and existed between the World Wars. Rather, he meant it literally: that the United States would always act to protect its national interests. There would be no more quasi-Marxian-sounding “wars of liberation.” The United States would spill its blood and spend its treasure only to defend its interests.
Let us stipulate that a key tenet in the protection of America’s interests is to prevent the Mideast from exploding into a regional ethno-religious war (that would most assuredly see nuclear weapons being used). We must also attest that no American interests are served by a repeat of what we did in Iraq (and attempted to do in Libya) in Syria today. We also have no interest in getting into a world war with Russia. Lastly, there is no doubt (and Mr. Trump has been consistent in this) that our two gravest threats in the region are the jihadists of ISIS and al Qaeda, as well as the Iranians.
With this in mind we have a way forward.
Even without the airstrikes against Assad, the United States has exponentially increased its footprint and the tempo of its operations in Syria. The Russians have reciprocated to such a degree that U.S. Special Forces and Russian Spetsnatz commandos are operating within hand grenade ranges of each other! So, Assad has proven that he is unreliable with this attack, since it needlessly escalates tensions between the United States and Russia when Assad needs the military might of both powers to punish his enemies (who are also their enemies).
The Russians have seen that America will not simply back down from Assad’s mindless aggression. Trump has indicated his willingness to work with Russia. All that Putin cares about is preserving the Alawite regime, not Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power.
Following America’s attack on Assad’s forces, the U.S. must pivot and start making calls not for regime change in Syria, but rather, for the Alawites to replace Assad. We should start working with the Russians to get the Alawites to follow through on these calls. We should make clear our intention to focus on ISIS and other terror networks and to prevent Syria from becoming a new Somalia. We should be content to leave the general players on the ground: We just need Bashar al-Assad to answer for his crimes. We do not wish to see a new caliphate birthed in Damascus, nor do we wish to destroy the Alawites. This is a compromise that I believe the Russians could reasonably accept and bring to the Alawites.
Right now, the Alawites’ position is precarious. This is part of the reason why Assad used a Sarin gas attack in the first place. The Alawites are looking for long-term reassurance that they will have at least a chance of surviving the Civil War intact. They can, so long as America does not bring the hammer down on them. We will be compelled to do so if Assad continues doing these egregious attacks.
Russia does not really want to get into a war with the United States. Especially not over Syria. It has considerable sway over the key players in this conflict and its interests in a) fighting ISIS and b) stabilizing Syria overlap with our own. President Trump made a career out of being a master of the art of the deal. Now is the time to prove it.
Besides, if this works in Syria, one hopes the results could be replicated in North Korea. After all, the goal of U.S. foreign policy should be 1) the preservation of our interests, 2) the protection of our values (whenever possible), and 3) doing this with as little cost to ourselves as possible.