Can you say “Syria”? Trump will soon come to the same conclusion that President Obama reached midway through his two terms; i.e. that Syria is a country full of nothing but “shitty options”. What makes things so complicated is that you have so many competing factions that are vying for power and influence. In the exposition that follows, those main “players” and their aims are laid out. End notes will outline the US options such as they exist.
Upon the death of his father Hafez, Bashir assumed the presidency and has ruled as an autocrat. A Shiite Muslim, he is determined to hang onto power, and has used chemical weapons, siege/starvation tactics, mass executions, torture, and indiscriminate bombings of civilian enclaves to beat down and decimate those who oppose his form of governance. The resulting death toll has been massive, numbering into the hundreds of thousands, and also triggered a staggering refugee crisis.
Al Qaeda and affiliates
This Sunni terrorist organization and its affiliates have waged a ‘hit-and-run” war campaign against Assad, their goal being to unseat him and turn Syria into a Sunni theocracy.
Another Sunni terrorist organization with headquarters in the Syrian city of Raqqa. ISIS is also committed to the overthrown of Assad and the establishment of a Sunni-based caliphate throughout the country and extending into the eastern neighbor, Iraq.
Up till a few years ago, this group was bent on removing Assad and setting up a more democratic form of government. But, as they were beaten back by Assad’s military, they increasingly grew weak and retreated to what was to become their last stronghold in the city of Aleppo. Now, even that bastion has been all but lost and the rebels have scattered to the point where they no longer have any cohesion and pose little threat to Assad.
The United State
Both presidents GW Bush and Obama stood opposed to the Assad regime. As recently as 2013, President Obama contemplated arming the aforementioned rebels. While some small caliber weapons were delivered it was all too little, too late. Rightly or wrongly, Obama has been faulted for not being more generous. His argument at the time was that if the rebels should get beaten down, all the arms shipped to them would fall into the hands of groups we oppose (1).
What is US policy now that we have a new president in office? In a relatively short time, it has shifted dramatically from “hands off/don’t get involved” to the very recent surgical missile strike launched by 45. Does he have a long-term, well-thought-out strategy for dealing with Syria? If one exists, it has not yet been made publicly or even shared with Congress.
Putin and Russia are Assad’s enablers and benefactors as they want him in power as a means of expanding their influence in the Middle East and for financial reasons related to oil. Hundreds of Russian military personnel are now stationed in Syria and it was a group of Russian fighter/bombers that targeted Aleppo (see above) and helped to break the backs of the rebels sequestered there.
This predominantly Shiite nation has sided with Assad to both establish itself as a major player in the Middle East, and to oppose the various Sunni forced arrayed against him. In short, Iran’s aims are geopolitical and religious.
The reality is that we have no good options and the ones that do exist are fraught with all sorts of potentially serious, negative consequences. Consider: The idea of trying to collect the rebels and meld them back into a formidable fighting force is the stuff of fantasies. We could continue with strategic, surgical bombings and missile attacks, but with the risk of killing even one of the Russians stationed in Syria., thus edging us closer to a major, open conflict. It’s also worth noting that no sooner had our recent missile attack ended than a Syrian jet fighter launched from the very airfield that we had targeted. Clearly, Assad was unimpressed by our aggressive retaliation. We can sustain our air war against Al Qaeda and ISIS presence in Syria, but even that is risky because our moving through Syrian airspace could be misinterpreted as more of a threat to Assad rather than an attack on his two main adversaries. In that regard, it is telling that as pushback against our missile strike, Russia has abandoned its participation in a mutually agreed-upon sharing of Syrian air space with us. In effect then, there is no air traffic control. The last and possibly the worst of all options is to go all-in, invade Syria, drive straight through to Damascus, and topple Assad. Any such move would surely prompt counter-moves by both Russia and Iran, the result being a brutal war.
Welcome to the real world, 45 !!!
- This is not a farfetched possibility. That is exactly what happened in our fight against ISIS in Iraq. We armed segments of the Iraqi army only to see they flee the battlefield and leave weapons and all sorts of vehicles behind.