It may be more difficult than President Donald Trump might wish to make Iran and Russia pay a “big price” for the suspected chemical attack in Syria over the weekend, one that he has accused the Syrian regime of carrying out with the support of its allies in Moscow and Tehran.
If the “price” for the attack was punishing airstrikes against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the White House isn’t saying. Syrian state television claimed that early Monday morning that airstrikes targeted an air base in Homs, a strategic staging ground for Russian and Syrian forces. The Pentagon said it wasn’t involved in any strikes in Syria, and Russia says the Israelis sent two F-15 fighter jets into Syrian airspace and launched eight missiles at the T-4 air base. The Russian Defense Ministry claims “Syrian air defense units” shot down five of the guided missiles.
The US President may find it problematic to deliver consequences in a conflict he has worked to shed any responsibility for. Last week, while he told the world he wanted to withdraw American troops from northern Syria, the three world leaders largely behind Assad’s survival met to discuss the way forward as they saw it. There was no American presence as the leaders of Turkey, Iran and Russia met, and no indication that the US would be included in discussions in the future.
There appeared to be little the President could actually do. On Sunday, he took to Twitter to shift the blame for the events in Syria to his predecessor, Barack Obama.
“If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!” Trump posted on Twitter.
“OK, Barack Obama made some mistakes,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “Is President Trump committed? Does he have the desire and the will to basically become engaged in Syria? This is the question,” he told CNN.
Unilaterally forfeiting American influence
Trump came into office determined to undo many of Obama’s policies, dissolve treaties he deemed against American interests and eager to avoid being drawn into conflicts abroad that he’d argued were costly and unnecessary.
But months in, Trump authorized his own military strike against a Syrian government air base after a chemical weapons attack killed dozens of civilians earlier in the city of Khan Sheikhoun. US warships launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the base that was headquarters for the warplanes that carried out the chemical attacks.
Trump’s decision at the time was viewed as a dramatic shift in his position on the presence of American troops in Syria. Footage showing “innocent babies” killed by chemical gas, “crosses many, many lines. Beyond a red line, many, many lines,” Trump said then.
Now a year later, Trump is back to bemoaning the American excursion in northern Syria.
He has signaled his intent to withdraw US troops and to scale back the country’s involvement in the fight against the remnants of the Islamic State. He’s reportedly unhappy with the amount of money the US was spending in the region, and has questioned the results of that expenditure. But after tense discussions with his national security team, he’s agreed to hold off on ordering the withdrawal.
That decision has “unilaterally forfeited any American influence in helping shape Syria’s future,” Fawaz Gerges told CNN. “Trump’s fateful decision will reinforce the widespread perception, among both friends and foes of the United States, that America is in retreat in Syria and beyond, unwilling to shoulder the burden of global leadership. It is also an explicit acknowledgment that the United States and its Syrian allies have lost the war.”
An unresolvable conundrum
Ostensibly, the United States has been in Syria for years now to battle elements of the Islamic State. Its troops had allied with Kurdish militias and other partners on the ground (in Iraq it was the Iraqi army and Shiite militias) to wrest back territory seized by the extremists across a swath of Iraq and Syria.
From early on, the Obama administration chose to distinguish its fight in Syria as focused largely against ISIS, and maintained its position regarding the Syrian regime to be in line with sanctions and pressure from the international community, but without any military leverage.
“US policy toward Syria has been debilitated by an irresolvable conundrum. While the US has led the fight against ISIS, in the broader Syrian context, it has been a secondary player reacting to adversaries who ignored the mantra that ‘there is no military solution in Syria,’” wrote Emile Hokayem and Karim Sadjadpour at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has supported Assad throughout years of international condemnation. His steadfastness has earned him visits from other Arab leaders who were disappointed with the Obama administration’s support of Arab revolutions that unseated their cohorts. America’s ebbing influence from the international scene has allowed Putin to assume a larger role and greater influence that he has emphasized in his ties to the Syrian regime.
“Russia has history, a defense pact, and close political relations with Damascus. Iran has more recent strategic links, growing commercial interests, and controls thousands of pro-Tehran militias in addition to its own troops across the country,” said Rodger Shanahan at the Lowy Institute in Australia. Turkey too, has commercial interests, hundreds of miles of a shared border, and hosts (under the dime of the European Union) hundreds of thousands of Syrians in its country.
Déjà vu at the UN
There are more meetings called at the United Nations Security Council, but with the Russians ready to veto any measures that are too punitive, there’s likely to be little accomplished beyond more speeches from Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the international body. She tweeted on Sunday about an emergency meeting to be held Monday to discuss the “horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians in Syria.”
“This is becoming all too common. Strong action is needed,” she said on Twitter. But it’s not clear what form that strong action might take.
On the Sunday talk shows, Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, called on Trump to respond “decisively” to “demonstrate that Assad will pay the price for his crimes.”
One way Trump could punish Syria would be to press Iran’s trading partners to exert economic pressure on Iran to curtail its ability to provide Syria with military support, but there’s a catch, say Hokayem and Sadjadpour.
“Persuading US allies to do more to counter Iran’s destructive regional policies will require continued US adherence to the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal) – a worthy trade-off,” they write. “Washington should simultaneously continue to expose the high costs of Iran’s regional policies … at a time of growing economic and political discontent in Iran.”
But Trump opposes the deal with Iran. In January, he said it was the last time he was issuing a waiver denoting that Iran was complying with the agreement. He said he was doing so “only in order to secure our European allies’ agreement to fix the terrible flaws” of the deal. He warned the US would not “again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. If at any time I judge that such an agreement is not within reach, I will withdraw from the deal immediately.”
“With President Trump’s nearing his decision on the nuclear agreement with Iran, there is a real and present danger that Syria will become the battleground for an even more dangerous conflagration than the war that is continuing on its torturous route,” noted the LSE’s Fawaz Gerges.
On Russia, Trump should “seek to exacerbate, not ease, Russia’s political and economic dilemmas in Syria,” given Assad’s reliance on the Russian military that has allowed him to survive for years now, Hokayem and Sadjadpour write. “The more Assad feels secure thanks to Russian help, the less inclined he is to make even the smallest concessions encouraged by Moscow.”
As it is, the US and Russia are already locked in a diplomatic battle of wills, fallout from election interference and the poisoning of a Russian double agent in the English city of Salisbury, allegedly at the hands of the Kremlin. Last week sanctions were finally announced against Russian individuals, troll farms and intelligence agencies.
A lack of strategic levers
There was little follow up from Trump after he ordered the military airstrikes on Syria in April 2017. Before he was unceremoniously dismissed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that US troops would leave Syria based on conditions on the ground, and not an aribitrary timeline.
“From a negotiator’s viewpoint, the lack of a timeline is good, but only if the parties you’re dealing with know you have significant leverage to exert. The challenge for Washington’s Syria policy all along has been its lack of strategic levers,” wrote Shanahan of the Lowy Institute.
Without any real strategy, and with a commander-in-chief declaring his readiness to remove American troops from the battlefield before the war is over, Trump will not only fail to punish Assad, he will embolden the Syrian President.
“The not unreasonable conclusion that is being drawn is that Assad will stay in power and he will not be forced to make any concessions to the battered opposition,” says Gerges, who has authored books on ISIS and the Middle East. “If so, Assad will forge ahead with his ruthless plan – buttressed by Russian and Iranian support – to recapture the remaining Syrian territories held by the rebels.”
“With the US absence, the key stakeholders in Syria … will consolidate their spheres of influence and divide the spoils of the post-war reconstruction amongst themselves,” he said, adding that “Russia and Iran will be the two biggest winners in Syria.”