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There is talk of renewed attacks on Syria and “Animal Assad” by an enraged President Trump. The stated reason is Assad’s alleged recent use of chemical weapons. This attack is curiously timed to say the least, following the president’s statements last week that ISIS was nearly defeated in Syria, and that our forces would be coming home “very soon.” After expressing his minimalist instincts, Trump faced resistance from his senior national security leadership over whether an immediate withdrawal was wise. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, among others, pushed for a longer stay based not on an arbitrary timetable, but rather an open-ended commitment.
In favor of our continued presence, Secretary Mattis, John Bolton, Nikki Haley, and other administration hawks point to the need for U.S. leadership and the breakdown of Iraqi security following the 2011 withdrawal of forces by President Obama. But let’s consider the timing of the recent use of chemical weapons. The widespread consensus is that the Assad regime, with Russian and American help, has mostly defeated ISIS and is consolidating its gains against other rebel groups, including the al-Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra organization. Last year, after a similar alleged chemical weapons attack, American cruise missiles throttled the Syrian regime. So why would the Syrian regime do it again? And now?
While questions of “who benefits?” are not always decisive in questions of intelligence, they are relevant. The Assad regime does not benefit from using chemical weapons. It is winning without them, and has done so with Russian help and (indirect) American intervention, which have combined to weaken ISIS considerably.
The regime’s efforts have also benefited from the collective disgust ISIS and similar radical groups have engendered among ordinary Syrian people. While the Assad regime had many domestic critics who took part in the Arab Spring protests of 2011, the long war and the long train of ISIS atrocities have led to the regime’s consolidation of power.
American forces almost immediately attacked Assad after its use of chemical weapons last year. Trump’s core supporters, who voted for him on his stated platform of America First, were not impressed. This was not least because the underlying act seemed illogical, and the attribution of blame to the Assad regime appeared hasty. After last year’s chemical attack I argued: “While it is not beyond belief Assad used chemical weapons, it seems more likely and certainly more in the interest of the rebels to do so, as they have been losing ground to Russian and Syrian forces in recent months. Blaming Assad for ‘using chemical weapons against his own people’ would, at the very least, get America’s attention. If this were a false flag operation, it succeeded in spades.” This applies doubly today.
Although the setbacks we endured in Iraq following our departure now encourage hawks to pursue continuous and unending engagement in the region, these wars are of dubious merit. Made-for-CNN atrocities are easily ginned up by those who have reasons to drag America into what are, essentially, local disputes.
The rise of ISIS after the withdrawal from Iraq was a worrisome development that called for a measured response, but let us roll back the tape of events even further. No American should ever forget the bad intelligence that brought America into the Iraqi quagmire in 2003. Credible, repeated, and sincerely held assessments of Iraqi’s weapons of mass destruction were the reason we went to war, and these claims turned out to be false. Several hundred thousand of America’s servicemen then cycled through Iraq pursuing the substitute goal of nurturing a friendly, multiparty Iraqi democracy, but in the end, these efforts resulted in a mediocre outcome: a switch from a thuggish Sunni autocracy to a corrupt, Shia-dominated, Iran-friendly (but elected) regime, as well as the loss of thousands of American lives and a trillion or more American dollars. Most Americans concluded it wasn’t worth the price, and that conclusion had much to do with the 2008 election of Barack Obama and the primary victory of Donald Trump.
After last year’s limited strike, the intelligence on the 2017 Syrian chemical weapons attack turned out to be shaky—so much so that one year later, Defense Secretary Mattis said, “The U.S. has no evidence to confirm reports from aid groups and others that the Syrian government has used the deadly chemical sarin on its citizens.”
American intervention in Syria was always a schizophrenic affair. On the one hand, we opposed ISIS, which was an enemy of Iraq, most Syrians, and civilization in general. In this endeavor, we were joined by the Assad regime, Russia, Iran, Iraq, and the vast majority of Syrians. Yet we also opposed the Assad regime and supported rebel groups—the so-called moderate rebels—but these proved ineffective, and many defected to ISIS or al Nusra.
The too-complicated-by-half strategy was mostly abandoned; Trump focused our efforts on ISIS, which has now been mostly defeated, and figured it was time to go home. After accomplishing this sensible goal, a wide coalition of interests within the government united around a dubious goal.
NeverTrumpers, national security experts, neoconservatives, and pro-Israel factions all want us to stay in Syria for various reasons, which Trump has pushed back upon aggressively. He has, however, shown commitment to the view that no one on any side should use chemical weapons and then, mirabile dictu, a few days later there is a chemical weapons attack that was blamed on the Syrian regime.
What makes more sense? That the Syrian regime did this, even though it faced massive attacks when last year’s attack was blamed on them? Or perhaps one of the anti-regime groups, which include moderate rebels, al Nusra rebels, ISIS, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, pinned an attack on the Assad regime in order to further the goal of an indefinite U.S. military commitment or simply to redirect U.S. efforts against the Assad regime?
Last year’s front page attribution of chemical attacks to the Syrian regime was only quietly withdrawn at a later date. Regardless of who actually conducted the 2017 attack, Trump showed he would act decisively against the use of weapons of mass destruction and preferred to act quickly. Even if the Assad regime plausibly may have been testing the limits of the new administration last year, for the regime to do so again now, after a swift and decisive response by President Trump, simply makes no sense. The only parties that benefit from the latest attack are anti-Assad forces of one stripe or another, not the Assad regime, which has proven perfectly capable of slowly winning a war of attrition against rebels using conventional means.
Donald Trump’s strength as a candidate was, in part, his rejection of the various self-imposed constraints imposed by the permanent bureaucracy, i.e., the Deep State. This included his deep skepticism of the continuation of American empire, which demands that our forces remain deployed indefinitely in a part of the world where they have had the least positive impact, the Middle East. For seven years, Syria has been cursed with a multiparty civil war composed of various factions, and no one is blameless among them.
To the extent we have any strategic interest in the region, it is the continuation of stable, if undemocratic, regimes. As evidenced by the chaos and long insurgency following the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the brutal devolution of Egyptian secularism following the arrest of Hosni Mubarack, sometimes a predictable, secular strongman is the best we can hope for. But even better, we should stay out of these matters as much as possible, especially when there is no obvious just cause, nor any clear American interest.
The introduction of chemical weapons into the mix admittedly complicates matters. There is a case to be made that maintaining this norm against using chemical weapons is in America’s interest. But before we unleash cruise missiles and bombs, everyone agrees (I hope) that we should first make sure we have the right guy. Here, when we ask, “Who would do something like that?” the answer seems to be everyone but Assad.
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Photo credit: Saher el Hacci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images