Marino de Medici: Trump in the swamp of Syria

Marino de Medici

Many Americans, quite possibly a majority of them, do not understand or accept the fact that many problems, such as the civil war in Syria, are beyond America’s ability to resolve.

After letting it be known that ousting Syrian president Assad was not an objective of his Syria policy, President Trump acted resolutely following the gas bombing of a Syrian village and unleashed a powerful string of cruise missiles on the airfield where the bombing mission originated. With that quick strike, he transformed himself from pragmatic isolationist into moral interventionist. His justification was explained as revulsion at the sight of the slow and brutal death of “beautiful babies.”

The American media and public may think otherwise, but there are huge risks in taking precipitous action as in the case of Syria, where American and Russian forces are entangled in a confrontation that has worsened. One of the risks is that American planes become targets for the highly effective Russian anti-aircraft missiles S300, nominally attached to Syrian units but operated in practice by Russian personnel. Doing nothing in the face of horrific war crimes is politically challenging and Trump has used this dilemma to the hilt in lambasting the decision of President Obama not to strike Syria after the regime’s first criminal use of sarin gas bombs in Syria. And yet, Obama accomplished something when he forced Assad to give up his stock of deadly gas under international supervision.

What Obama did was to avoid a dangerous entanglement of America in a no-win situation. Suddenly, President Trump has pushed the United States much deeper into the Syrian meat grinder and has put the nation on a road that could lead to a collision with Russia. His military action that hit the air assets of the Syrian dictator is a short-term success. The long-term perspective, however, is not so auspicious, not only because the Syrian civil war is unwinnable but because of the concomitant expectation that the level of fighting and destruction will rise.

The reality is that many countries – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Russia, in addition to the United States – have been intervening in Syria for years. At the root of the civil war in Syria there is another existential conflict, the one between the Shiites and the Sunnis. It is a deep-rooted political dimension that may explain the decision by President Trump to get involved in an unmistakable openly interventionist choice.

Trump has in fact decided to join the front of the Sunnis, a choice that will drastically limit the ability of the United States to act, if not as a mediator, at least as a diplomatic facilitator of a dialogue aimed at resolving the Syrian civil war. Taking sides with the Sunnis has all the hand marks of strong pressures from Saudi Arabia, the Egyptian President Sissi, Jordanian King Abdullah, Turkey and the new insiders in Washington where the military seems to be calling the shots. To this list one must add the powerful influence of Israel that perseveres in its mission to neutralize Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, Assad’s old allies.

For years, the media but most of all Republican politicians have tried to convince Americans that President Obama’s refusal to intervene in Syria after the sarin gas bombings violated his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces. The charge was picked up by candidate Trump and to this day he continues to hammer the Obama presidency: “Obama did nothing.”

The fact of the matter, that Trump and the media conveniently forget, is that while the Obama administration did not unleash a punitive raid against an air base, it did drop a huge quantity of bombs and assorted ordnance in Syria on ISIS and other extremist forces. No less significant, the reality is that the United States deployed forces in Syria to aid the rebels while observing the fiction of non-intervention. In fact, candidate Trump urged Obama to follow a policy of non-intervention until he change tune in the course of the electoral campaign, up to present time, to accuse the Democratic president of “doing nothing.”

The fact that 1,300 tons of chemical stock were destroyed – as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons testified – went almost unnoticed, until it became clear that Assad had procured more gas bombs to use on civilians in rebel territory. A thinking strategist would be concerned that sarin gas was still available to Assad but would also consider the fact that the destruction of 1,300 tons of gas ordnance spared the unfortunate Syrians much wider loss of life under atrocious bombings in violation of international norms.

One last consideration to be raised after Trump’s cruise missile attack is that it will be more difficult now to try and restart a ceasefire in Libya as a follow up to the efforts of Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry. In practical terms, it is hard to imagine the present Secretary of State Rex Tillerson taking on a task for which he is totally ill prepared – that of resuscitating a national ceasefire in Syria. The convergent interests of the U.S. and Russia to fight ISIS, which President Trump calls the highest priority, are at very least compromised by the outright American intervention in Syria. In short, the long-term picture of the Middle Eastern unending hostilities is more muddled than ever. And the fact that President Trump has done “something” is hardly worth a celebration.

Marino de Medici is a Winchester resident and formerly the dean of foreign correspondents in the United States.