Monday, April 10, 2017

Tragedy and Farce in Syria

Airstrikes launched against Syria by the Trump administration on April 6 prove Marx's adage about history transpiring first as tragedy, then as farce. The Obama White House's indecision and passivity in the face of the Syrian crisis were an excruciatingly protracted tragedy. For Obama's "red line" to be enforced by a man who has in all other ways disgraced and discredited the office of the presidency is so absurd that to call it "farce" is completely inadequate.

Those on all parts of the political spectrum who grieve at the damage Trump is doing to our Republic will no doubt be inclined to condemn this new Syria policy.  That inclination will be strengthened by the undeniable fact that Trump's motives are suspect and the politics of this policy malodorous. It is no coincidence that Trump has transgressed upon Russian strategic interests just when he most needs to distance himself from Moscow, and seeks the luster of a "war leader" just as his approval ratings hit historic lows.

That being noted, it is nonetheless true that, like the proverbial broken clock, Trump has stumbled upon the right course of action in response to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons. To understand why this is so one need only contemplate the motives of Assad in murdering his own people with sarin gas. There are only two real possibilities in this regard.

The first, a scenario that will be favored by the conspiracy-minded, is that the Assad regime (presumably at the behest of Moscow) launched the sarin gas attack last week to provide Trump with a pretext to "wag the dog." Though appealingly plausible, this scenario is highly unlikely for many reasons. The Assad regime is engaged in a fight for its life, it has little motive to take potentially fatal risks to provide Donald Trump with political cover. The perceived possibility that chemical weapons might be used is a strategic asset Assad would be loath to part with, and any military action on the part of the US will boost morale among the rebels in ways that will materially degrade Damascus's strategic advantage. The same caveats apply when we think of Russia's perspective. Even if we assume that Moscow views Trump as an asset that it wants to protect, Putin has little cause to expend political capital in this way. Moscow faces dissent at home, it can hardly afford to risk being "humiliated" by the US in the eyes of its own people simply to save Donald Trump's bacon.

Occam's Razor dictates that Bashar al-Assad had a different motive in using chemical weapons against his own people. Expressions of disengagement and disinterest on the part of the Trump White House had left the Assad regime feeling that light could be seen at the end of the tunnel leading to a final military resolution of the Syrian civil war. Last week's sarin gas attack was thus a "test balloon," launched in the expectation that it would elicit no response from the US or its allies, and that such a contingency would create terror and chaos among anti-government forces. If the populations among whom the rebels live became persuaded that the Assad regime was about to unleash mass-murder on a scale that even this brutal civil war has not yet seen, the purchase of rebel forces in their current strongholds might become untenable. That was an outcome worth risking blowback from committing such a heinous war crime.

Because this was most likely the motive of Assad's gas attack, it required a response. However minimal the damage done to Assad's forces may have been from Thursday's air strikes, they sufficed to violently commit the U.S. to the proposition that Damascus must not use chemical weapons. Assad understands how politics works- he knows that another gas attack in the future will force the Trump administration to respond with greater destructiveness or risk crippling political embarrassment at home. Therefore, if they have done nothing else of value, the air strikes in Syria have made it highly unlikely that chemical weapons will be used again by the Assad regime. Though that is an admittedly tenuous benefit, it is still real.

If Donald Trump's leadership remains true to form, this military action will not produce a coherent or effective policy in response to the ongoing crisis of the Syrian civil war. Indeed, the risks entailed by any military action cannot help but make one wish that a steadier hand was at the tiller. Still, in this one instance Trump has achieved an at least minimally positive impact. If he garners unearned political capital from this act, the blame unfortunately lies with President Obama. Obama left open the opportunity for Donald Trump to distinguish himself from his predecessor with this display of "decisiveness."  Though this is bitter farce, it does proffer one clear lesson for those who are paying attention: if and when the White House is again occupied by a leader worthy of the presidency, he or she will have to chart a course between the dysfunctional inaction of Barack Obama in Syria and the reckless adventurism of George W. Bush in Iraq.

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