The U.S. strikes last week on suspected chemical weapons sites near Damascus and Homs exemplify how not to use military force. Their only consequence is to highlight the poverty of the foreign policy of which they are part: driven by questionable intelligence, the “CNN effect,” and an inability to come to grips with real problems.
The strikes did a little harm to Syrian leader Bashar al Assad, who is a dependent of Iran and Russia and who is nearly helpless vis à vis our newest enemy, Turkey. Iran is extending its reach to the Mediterranean and threatening war on Israel. Russia is solidifying hegemony over the Middle East. Turkey is making war on the Kurds, the only real allies the United States has had in the region in a generation. Instead of braking any of these ominous developments, the U.S. government, reverting to type, destroyed a few buildings and hyped its own virtues in garbled neo-Wilsonian lingo.
The U.S. government’s claim that the Assad regime used chlorine gas and sarin together (that would be a first) against civilians separately from movement of ground troops (military nonsense) may or may not be correct. The government presented no evidence except videos. When it does have evidence, it usually crows. “Tin foil hats” are not necessary for skepticism, given U.S. intelligence’s historic and unbroken allergy to checking information that comes over the transom, its reflexive reaction to cable news reports of reported atrocities, and its own penchant for grandstanding.
No Geopolitical Significance
But the provenance of those chemical attacks, if any, is irrelevant to policy.
U.S. intelligence does not know what was in those buildings. But their destruction has little to do with the production of simple chemical weapons. Tokyo terrorists cooked up sarin in garages. Strikes at 3 a.m. did nothing to degrade the Assad regime’s human expertise in this field. Moreover, if Russia and Iran were complicit, as claimed, they can easily make up what was destroyed.
In short, the strikes’ military significance is tiny, and the geopolitical significance is nil.
Material confirmation comes from Moscow. The Russians’ S-400 air defense system, located at their air and naval bases, covers Damascus, Homs, and lots more with a blanket that the U.S. military judges formidable enough to have kept all manned aircraft well outside its reach. Only our most stealthy, most electronic-counter-measured cruise missiles were sent through it. The Syrians, using the Soviet-vintage S-300, inflicted about 10 percent casualties on our best stuff. But the Russians decided not to engage any of their own equipment, judging that defending targets that have no strategic meaning for Russia or for its allies was not worth what they would lose by revealing the S-400’s operational characteristics.
Then again, those targets had zero strategic meaning for America as well.
Syria ceased to exist sometime in 2012. The current struggle between Russia, Turkey, and Iran over its remains poses challenges for American statecraft that transcend our minimal interest in those remains themselves. Over a generation, feckless U.S. officials have fostered such disrespect for America as to incite these contenders and others to act in ways dangerous to our peace. Hence, regaining that essential respect must be our primary concern—the object of our strategy. Bombing that does not lead to respected facts-on-the-ground only makes matters worse. If need be, take lessons from Putin.
Consider who is doing what to whom, and then ask what is that to us, and what can we do about it in our interest? If we act there, it must be to do something good and lasting for ourselves.
Iran is the main beneficiary of the last stages of the Syrian civil war. Already having reduced Shia-dominated Iraq to satellite status, having done virtually the same to Lebanon through Shia Hezbollah, and now being the executor of Russia’s protectorate over Alawite rump-Syria, it is engaged in maneuvers vis à vis Turkey and the Kurds to secure the last link of its power from Central Asia to the Mediterranean. Due partly to the resources that the Islamic Republic gained from the Obama Administration’s nuclear deal, Iran’s growing influence and armament are weighing against U.S. interests and threatening a war with Israel likely to involve America.
Yet U.S. foreign policy, in deference to Germany, France, Britain, as well as domestic interests, continues the “deal,” strengthening Iran’s hand. But bombing buildings in Damascus gives Washington a warm feeling.
President Erdogan’s Turkey has turned its back to the NATO alliance, joining with Iran and Russia—and with China as well—against all manner of U.S. interests. Until recently the sine qua non of ISIS, Turkey integrates its escapees into its irregular forces. Forcefully, Erdogan pursues twin objectives: the spread of Sunni power under his (Ottoman) leadership through these irregulars, and crushing the region’s demographically surging Kurdish population. But his incompetence is making it possible for Iran and Russia to take advantage of Turkish policy. Hence, for example, Turkey is clearing Kurds from areas of former Syria along its border which it cannot hold and that must eventually come under Iranian control. U.S. policy, for its part, bound as it is to the outdated notion “Turkey, our NATO ally” poses little objection. Instead, we bomb Assad.
Russia, its victories having made it the Middle East’s arbiter, is aligning the entire region against us. But whereas Iran’s intentions seem aimed at a major war and Turkey is already fighting a minor one, Russia seems to be trying to consolidate long-term gains. An Iran-Hezbollah war on Israel is not in Russia’s interest. Israel counts on that. Yet Russia cannot be sure of being able to contain Iran in this regard. For Putin, peeling Turkey away from NATO is such a big, unearned prize that he is not inclined to consider the troubles that Erdogan’s adventures can make for Moscow—especially since none are on the horizon. The United States could put such troubles on his agenda, while containing Iran in our own interest.
Instead, we get this.
A Signal Lost in Noise
Other than salvaging vital respect, and safeguarding Israel, America has no vital interests in the Levant. Protecting these as we disengage requires putting brakes on the Turks and Iranians, and salvaging a pied a terre vis à vis the Russians. It should be easy enough to stop facilitating Iran by re-imposing the sanctions removed in 2015, and this time applying them to anyone who trades with Iran.
In the aftermath of the late strikes, U.S. spokesmen gloried in having “sent a signal.” That signal, however, was one of unseriousness. Real sanctions would need no hype. To stop hurting ourselves, it should be even easier to cease to treat Turkey as an ally, in word and in deed, so long as it is ruled by Erdogan. That, too, would speak for itself. As for Russia, no words can undo its victories in the region. The path to limiting its gains lies in safeguarding our remaining assets there in a manner not inconsistent with Russia’s own interests.
The Kurdish people, who live from the Mediterranean shores to the Iranian plateau, are America’s only remaining strategic asset east of Israel. Salvaging that asset by securing their independence from the governments of Damascus, of Turkey, of Iran-dominated Iraq, and of Iran itself is the most concrete way of limiting these countries’ capacity to hurt America’s interests. Russia will not make war to stop this, and may welcome it as a factor for the stability of their gains. The Kurds have proven that even outgunned they are more effective fighters man for man than any of their neighbors.
If U.S. foreign policy were worthy of the name, the hundred-some cruise missiles salvoed at buildings could have supported Kurdish forces as they secured a Kurdish state from the Iranian plateau to the Mediterranean.
Photo credit: Matthew Daniels/U.S. Navy via Getty Images