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The Art of the Syrian Deal

[ 87 ] April 7, 2017 |
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USS Ross (DDG-71) By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Michael Sandberg. – Source, Public Domain.

Fifty-nine cruise missiles hit the Syrian airbase responsible for last week’s nerve gas attack.  Russian personnel were present at the airbase, and Russia was notified ahead of time about the strike.  This means that Syria was also notified ahead of time.  According to HR McMaster, the US intentionally avoided targeting buildings suspected of holding gas stockpiles. Syrian casualties have apparently been minimal. Here’s a discussion of satellite imagery post attack.  The Russian response has been fairly muted, although Russia now claims it will cease all deconfliction procedures (communications that prevent US and Russian planes from operating in the same airspace). As of the moment, the operation appears to have ended.

Some implications:

  • The direct military impact of the attack is trivial. The next big question is how Syrian actors will respond; will the Assad government moderate its tactics, at least insofar as chemical weapons are concerned?  Will rebel groups take heart, and increase their tempo of operations?
  • If Russian personnel were present at the airbase that launched the chemical attacks, then there are some really big questions about how much they knew about Syrian government plans, and when they knew it.  I doubt Assad would have informed the Russians in advance of the attack, but handling procedures for chemical munitions differ considerably from those for dumb bombs; it’s hard to believe that the Russians wouldn’t have noticed something.
  • The Israelis are claiming that they have evidence that Assad ordered the attacks personally.  Take or leave that as you will; for my part, this does not seem to be something that the Israelis would go out of their way to lie about.  Bibi has made every effort to cultivate Putin over the last few years, and it’s not as if the Israelis were ever that enthusiastic about the replacement of Assad.
  • If I’m ISIS I’m very happy today.  The net effect of all of this is less cooperation and more conflict between all of the partners fighting against ISIS.  Whether it will be enough to stave off the offensive on Raqqa is a different question.
  • Good discussions at Lawfare on legality; see here, here, and here.
  • The idea that the Chinese will be intimidated by this does not seem… sound.  The US just conducted a strike that eliminated virtually zero extant Syrian military capability, and that endangered no Americans.  This is not the stuff that strong reputations for toughness, resolve, and credibility are made of.
  • It’s not at all obvious what message the Syrian government is supposed to be taking from this.  Bombing civilians is okay, but chemical agents are a step too far?  Assad is probably fine with that, on balance.  Regime change is back on the table?  Hopefully there’s some backchannel communication designed to clarify US expectations for Moscow and Damascus.

Overall, we’re in the least worst case right now; stuff got blowed up, but the impact seems relatively small.  This could certainly change in the future, especially if the Trump administration decides to follow up with additional kinetic measures.

With respect to the domestic debate in the US…  My views on this strike are clear; it was a bad idea.  Along the historic continuum of bad ideas from Little Big Horn to Operation Barbarrosa, it could be a lot worse; if there’s no escalation, then it’s not a huge disaster.  I certainly share Paul’s distaste for pundits who appear to be thirsty for bombing, ANY bombing, and who aren’t sufficiently sated by the five other bombing campaigns that the US is currently conducting.  And I am utterly flummoxed that anyone would trust Trump to manage this competently, even if they believed the initial strike was a good idea.  At the same time, the claim that the Democrats somehow drove Trump to bomb Syria by criticizing him over his Russia ties would be fraudulent if it weren’t too flatly idiotic to constitute fraud.

See also Marc Lynch.

 

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  1. J. Otto Pohl says:

    As bad as Assad has been for most Syrians using US military force to remove him and risk replacing him with a Sunni Islamist regime seems like a bad idea overall. The only real US allies in the war are the Kurds in Rojava organized fighting in the YPG/YPJ. But, they have been fighting against ISIS and not Assad. As far as the actual US bombing it looks a lot like some never executed proposals of the Obama administration in 2013.

    http://jpohl.blogspot.com/2013/09/no-to-us-intervention-in-syria.html

    • los says:

      As I’ve only glanced at – not read – Turkey has taken advantage of the mess, by heating up the ancient fights with Kurds.

      • mongolia says:

        the turkish fight is more of a domestic politics struggle though – basically start a civil war in the southeast to discredit the kurdish nationalist party and get the conservative kurds to vote akp for stability purposes. the fight with the ypg/ypj is obviously used as a pretext for reignition of the fighting, but it’s more incidental to the real goals of the ruling party.

  2. Some thoughts on the Trump/Syria bombinghttps://t.co/2MTaoh57MN— gocart mozart (@HarryTuttle11) April 7, 2017

  3. Alex.S says:

    Do we have any of the following yet–

    * A few bullet points on what our goals in Syria are, and what the next steps will be?

    * The legal argument used to justify the air strike?

    * A new AUMF that covers the goals and methods in Syria?

    * An explanation for why it was important to keep the airstrikes secret from America? There was no need for the element of surprise, since the targets were warned ahead of time to minimize casualties.

    —————–

    America’s policy towards Syria completely changed in less than a week. I would really like to know what our current policy is.

    • Rob in CT says:

      LOL, policy. We’re in a post-policy world now.

    • NonyNony says:

      * A few bullet points on what our goals in Syria are, and what the next steps will be?

      * Assad is a very bad man
      * We have bombs
      * Let’s use them
      * That’s it

      * The legal argument used to justify the air strike?

      * Congress won’t make a fuss so as an internal matter no one will say anything
      * Maybe the international community will decide to arrest Trump the next time he leaves the country – I find that doubtful
      * No punishment means its not illegal!

      * A new AUMF that covers the goals and methods in Syria?

      * This Congress couldn’t pass gas after eating a gallon tin of beans
      * McConnell and Ryan will somehow contort themselves into knots to justify why this is fine and likely covered under the War Powers Act or something
      * Democrats will object, but who cares what they think? Certainly nobody in the media. Especially if they’re going to be Debbie Downers about the awesome explosions!
      * Rand Paul might say something – if he does it probably means he’s thinking about his future presidential grift campaign! But he’s the only Republican who might

      * An explanation for why it was important to keep the airstrikes secret from America? There was no need for the element of surprise, since the targets were warned ahead of time to minimize casualties.

      * Nobody in Trump’s circle thought letting the public know was an important step – or even a step at all
      * That’s not a joke. That’s just the truth.
      * It’s what happens when you don’t have a working apparatus around you in the form of, oh I dunno, a State Department.

      • BigHank53 says:

        why it was important to keep the airstrikes secret

        Actually, if you look at who Trump doesn’t want to talk to (the media, Democrats, and members of the public that aren’t cheering his name) you’ll notice it matches up really well with the people who didn’t need to know he was blowing up another country.

      • * Rand Paul might say something – if he does it probably means he’s thinking about his future presidential grift campaign! But he’s the only Republican who might

        Paul actually has already denounced both the attack and the lack of legal justification for it. So have a handful of the more libertarian-ish GOP Representatives.

        • GeorgeBurnsWasRight says:

          I haven’t kept count, but of the People Who Matter (as selected by the media) it seems like there’s as many rightwing critics of the missile launch as leftwing ones.

    • keta says:

      The current American policy re: Syria is whatever will most look like a win for Donald Trump.

      Period.

    • los says:

      minimize casualties.

      Enough time for (most?) airplanes to fly to elsewhere.
      That would also be enough time for humans to get into ground vehicles.

    • efgoldman says:

      I would really like to know what our current policy is.

      When the maladministration has one, I’m sure they’ll let the rest of us know.

      • los says:

        Hopefully the Trump(?) maladministation will leak the policy to Putin in time for him to alert us to evacuate.

        • GeorgeBurnsWasRight says:

          I tried to evacuate already, but it turns out Canada doesn’t want the olds.

          • Redwood Rhiadra says:

            Canada also doesn’t want the youngs, unless they speak French.

            (I’m not joking. Unless you have a Canadian relative, are a member of a recognized First Nations tribe, or speak French, Canada will not accept you as an immigrant.)

    • Joe Bob the III says:

      We will have a better idea of what the policy is when new poll numbers come out next week.

      • los says:

        :-)

        My flimsy prediction:
        Continued drop among noncucks, but possibly a smaller drop than recent drops.
        Largest post-inauguration (3 to 5%?) drop among Republicans.

        Assuming no “bombshells” occur from now to the next approval survey.

  4. howard says:

    i do believe the message for assad/syria is exactly what you suggest: that some in the trump administration believe that their loose talk last week was interpreted by assad as license, he tested that license, and the message is return to the status quo ante.

    which, as you say, assad is probably fine with: the question is whether trump moves on….

    • Gregor Sansa says:

      Trump has no plans for a next act, but he certainly learned that BOOM GOOD. I think that he “moves on” but starts bugging the generals to see if there isn’t anywhere else he can blow up, and that he’s an automatic yes for any plans they bring him. The damage will probably be limited to Syria because he already fucked up Yemen, and the generals don’t actually want to start shooting in North Korea or the South China Sea. I guess Afghanistan is always a possibility.

      In the old video game Balance of Power, it was a good idea to provoke a crisis in Burma on turn 1 because if the other side blinked you got a bunch of points and if not you could always start the game again. I think Syria is the new Burma.

  5. C.V. Danes says:

    $100 million could have funded a lot of meals on wheels.

  6. wengler says:

    I don’t think Farley should totally discount the ability of Syria to retaliate. If Hezbollah can nearly sink an Israeli destroyer, then Syria, with some access to the anti-ship arsenals of Russia and Iran can certainly endanger US ships in the Med.

    I think the aspects of this that can’t be overstated is that the US last night directly went to war against a country it hadn’t previously been at war with, having no legal framework to do so. Impulsive and illegal. The hallmarks of the Orange Fascist Clown.

    • Nepos says:

      I dunno, the US has been launching missiles at a variety of countries for a long time–Clinton’s strike in Sudan was in 1998. While this particular attack is notable for the sheer number of missiles, in terms of damage it really isn’t any more remarkable than actions taken by a number of Trump’s predecessors.

      I’m not saying it isn’t illegal, but it’s not unusual either.

    • For what it’s worth (practically nothing), I agree with Farley that Syria is happy to treat this as a message received and go back to killing its people in all the usual awful ways and putting the chemicals back in the warehouse.

    • Lurker says:

      The term “war” is not really a good one. It is, mostly, something dropped out of the active vocabulary of current international law. You can have a war only if one party is an aggressor, which is forbidden by the UN Charter. Instead, both countries claim either Article 51 self-defense or the responsibility to protect. As a result, you have an international armed conflict, and usually, the US government denies even this.

      “War” is a term of domestic law in some countries. It essentially defines a state of emergency, but, for example, many European states have replaced the term with something called “defence state” or “defence situation”. Such a state of emergency can be usually declared even if there exists no armed conflict, but only a present danger of one. This is well in line with the practice of international law: you can have an armed conflict, with one or both parties perhaps declaring emergencies before or during the conflict, with everyone returning to state of peace simply with a cease-fire, perhaps even without a formal cease-fire. No peace treaty needed, and legally, no aggressor need be named. If you were to declare war formally, you would essentially declare yourself the aggressor.

    • EvanHarper says:

      I realize that some people also would have said this about Obama, but… you realize Obama claimed that exactly this action was constitutionally legal, yeah?

    • GeorgeBurnsWasRight says:

      I think they have the ability but currently don’t think it’s in their interests to do so. That could change, but minor damage to an airfield probably doesn’t shift the equation enough.

  7. (((max))) says:

    The Israelis are claiming that they have evidence that Assad ordered the attacks personally. Take or leave that as you will; for my part, this does not seem to be something that the Israelis would go out of their way to lie about. Bibi has made every effort to cultivate Putin over the last few years, and it’s not as if the Israelis were ever that enthusiastic about the replacement of Assad.

    Agree with everything else, going to disagree with this. It’s been pretty clear that the R establishment in cooperation with the Likudniks in Israel have been gunning for Assad since 2002. In terms of Bibi, he hates Iran and Hizbollah, and those guys are lined up with Assad, so that’s that. He may have been cultivating Russia but in no way has he cultivated Assad. (And, incidentally, since Bibi is lined up four square with the Saudis, he isn’t going to risk making friends with Assad even if he were inclined to do so.)

    It’s pretty to me that various powers (the Saudis, the Turks, the Gulf Arabs) have been lobbying hard for the US to invade Syria since ever, for reasons that have zip to do with human rights, and I’ve counted Bibi as being on their side the entire time.

    The Israelis may be telling the truth, but they have plenty of good reasons to make shit up about this incident.

    max
    [‘Besides, Bibi is very Trumpish, so he’s going to want to back his buddy.’]

  8. EvanHarper says:

    Now that the extreme hysteria of last night seems to be maybe calming, can I just say it’s amazing that no-one is out there making the case – which seems pretty strong if circumstantial – that this entire episode, from the chemical massacre through the airbase strike, was completely unnecessary and only happened because Trump failed to consult his people in an orderly way and establish a coherent policy? A week ago today Assad was “a political reality that we have to accept,” and “counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of ISIS” was the higher priority (language that could easily have been interpreted as Russian-style doubletalk meaning “we’re pro-Assad.”) Four days later and for the first time since the Fall 2013 war scare, Assad pops off the sarin. (Previous attacks used vastly less effective chlorine.)

    Why isn’t anyone talking about this? It seems completely plausible that Trump got 100 women and kids killed through sheer fecklessness, then turned around and fired some cruise missiles, becoming An Great American States Man by exercising a threat that Obama would have never actually had to execute because he wouldn’t have fucked up the policy in the first place. This would also seem to be a better line of attack than whatever crazy shit about Russia the Dems are going with.

    • efgoldman says:

      this entire episode, from the chemical massacre through the airbase strike, was completely unnecessary and only happened because Trump failed to consult his people in an orderly way and establish a coherent policy?

      He has no people to consult.
      His Secretary of State is a generic corporate CO who clearly knows nothing of diplomacy or the world other than where the geologists say the oil is.
      Hi Secretary of Defense is a general, sure, and probably competent to run a war, but he has apparently gone to a bunker somewhere.
      Neither secretary has any staff, literally.
      No service secretaries, no deputy secretaries, undersecretaries, or assistant secretaries; three whole levels of expertise, advice, research, and analysis gone and not replaced in the two most important departments foreign-facing departments.
      On purpose, with malice aforethought, because Apricot Asswipe and his boss, president Bannonazi are not only the smartest guys in the room, they’re the smartest fucking guys in the whole fucking universe!

      • EvanHarper says:

        Well yes, the “lack of orderly consultation” problem is definitely related to the “failure to empower competent advisors” problem.

      • Yankee says:

        He has no people to consult.

        You don’t think they’ve replaced the RT server in the basement?

      • los says:

        efgoldman says:

        Secretary of State is a generic corporate CO who clearly knows nothing of diplomacy or the world other than where the geologists say the oil is.

        Bannon/Kushner/Putin and Tillerson’s global oil agenda was certain, but I expected Tillerson would do better than he has, yet he seems to wear blinders regarding anything and anything but the Russian oil crowd.
        Kushner deals with (almmost?) whatever else when Trump team doesn’t ignore foreign matters.

    • los says:

      Assad was “a political reality that we have to accept,” and “counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of ISIS” was the higher priority (language that could easily have been interpreted as Russian-style doubletalk meaning “we’re pro-Assad.”) Four days later and for the first time since the Fall 2013 war scare, Assad pops off the sarin.

      Multiple tweeters mentioned this.
      Trump committed the “April Glaspie” mistake

    • njorl says:

      That struck me as strange as well. The statements from Tillerson and Haley made it clear that we didn’t view any of Assad’s prior actions as worthy of intervention.

    • los says:

      EvanHarper says:

      Trump… fired some cruise missiles, becoming An Great American States Man by exercising a threat that Obama would have never actually had to execute because he wouldn’t have fucked up the policy in the first place. This would also seem to be a better line of attack than whatever crazy shit about Russia the Dems are going with.

      That’s as fuzzy a message as the Russian Putin stuff

      Of course the cucks, altcucks, and altaltcucks reject straightforward concepts when those aren’t cuckservatively correct.
      But mostly, *cucks love a bloody slaughter.

      Your only target sliver of electorate is some of the independents, although any argument should increase GOTV (and increase letters to the editor, facebook, and other expressions of opinion)

    • GeorgeBurnsWasRight says:

      I’m sure someone here knows more than I do about this, but didn’t Iraq One happen because Hussein thought we were not going to militarily oppose his plans to invade Kuwait? And that this misunderstanding wasn’t completely his fault?

  9. kvs says:

    The Russian response is poetic and shows a clear understanding of Trump’s temperament.

    Medvedev said Friday that “The last remaining election fog has lifted. Instead of an overworked statement about a joint fight against the biggest enemy, ISIS (the Islamic State), the Trump administration proved that it will fiercely fight the legitimate Syrian government.”

    “Beyond that is absolute mistrust,” he added later. “Which is really sad for our now completely ruined relations. And which is good news for terrorists.”

    “One more thing,” Medvedev’s statement concluded. “This military action is a clear indication of the US President’s extreme dependency on the opinion of the Washington establishment, the one that the new president strongly criticized in his inauguration speech. Soon after his victory, I noted that everything would depend on how soon Trump’s election promises would be broken by the existing power machine. It took only two and a half months.”

    • lahtiji says:

      shows a clear understanding of Trump’s temperament

      They know him better than he knows himself. It’s like they have a dossier on him or something!

    • efgoldman says:

      “This military action is a clear indication of the US President’s extreme dependency on the opinion of the Washington establishment, the one that the new president strongly criticized in his inauguration speech. Soon after his victory, I noted that everything would depend on how soon Trump’s election promises would be broken by the existing power machine. It took only two and a half months.”

      That is some fierce burn!
      Language of diplomacy, my ass.
      Another norm that the mouth breathers have shitcanned.

      • GeorgeBurnsWasRight says:

        I disagree that Trump has an extreme dependency on the opinion of the Washington establishment, unless you consider Breitbart et al “the establishment”.

  10. Bitter Scribe says:

    This is an excellent and heartbreaking treatise on how Obama fucked up by not intervening in Syria when he had the chance.

    Of course, hindsight is 20/20. And when previous interventions blew up the way they did, it’s natural to be leery of new ones. But I don’t think there’s any denying that Obama screwed the pooch here.

    • PunditusMaximus says:

      There are no moderate rebels. Assad is deranged and evil. Erdogan is deranged and evil. Al Qaeda and ISIS are deranged and evil.

      No one ever knew what came after Assad, and no one now knows what comes after Assad.

      • los says:

        The situation has been impossible, beyond trying to get noncombatants out of immediate battle zones.

        Intervening after early slaughters of protesters should have been better, but politically impossible (except for al qaeda, putin, etc)

    • TopsyJane says:

      But I don’t think there’s any denying that Obama screwed the pooch here.

      The Administration admitted as much. And in the end Obama just punted. Syria is a very hard case indeed, but still – not Obama’s finest hour, to say the least.

      • los says:

        As I (now only generally) recall reading, Republicans were already in love with Putin.
        But even if they weren’t, “One Term President” was the overriding conservative principle by which Republicans denied whatever type of authorization that Obama had requested.

        The “offer” from the Russian diplomats of removing Assad’s chemical weapons became Obama’s political “escape chute”. Apparently Republicans weren’t able to finagle shame out of that agreement.

        I also recall that removing chemical weapons did nothing about crude barrel bombs, which an air power authorization would have easily made obsolete.

    • Aaron Morrow says:

      I’m not sure arming moderate rebels who also attacked Turks would have been good, but the idea that American support would have kept the Syrian Kurds in line when it didn’t work in Iraq is grasping at straws.

      But hell, if I was that author I’d grasp at those very same straws, too.

    • vic rattlehead says:

      I seem to recall Congress refusing to authorize military intervention in Syria in 2013.

      “Fucked up” and “screwed the pooch” are way too strong here. You have to evaluate Obama’s decision making from the ex ante perspective. I understand that the issue is personal to the writer of that piece, but Obama was handed an extraordinarily complex and volatile situation without any really great options. And he had also campaigned in 08 on the promise of ending two wars.

      I don’t agree with the argument that in hindsight Obama should have intervened “when he had the chance.” But it’s a defensible one. Saying that it tarnishes his legacy? I’m not going to argue that he was perfect or that there are no black marks on his record. But he was dealing with WAY too fucking much of a clusterfuck for me to condemn him.

    • GeorgeBurnsWasRight says:

      I can deny it unless you can tell me how Syria was going to be better after we either bombed them heavily or bombed and then invaded them.

      Your comment about “previous interventions” blowing up supports my point. When you’ve got a country that’s been run for a long time by a dictator and contains factions that don’t get along, an external invasion just leaves a power vacuum that has no decent leaders to fill it, because all the decent leaders are dead or in exile.

      Heck, even Russia, after looking like it might get better, has reverted to its old czarist style, and that was without the problems that the devastation of war cause.

      • Bitter Scribe says:

        No one’s talking about bombing or invading. Try reading the article I linked to. In brief, it says that 1) there was a moderate, reasonable resistance—the Free Syrian Army—that would have had an excellent chance of succeeding if 2) Obama had imposed a no-fly zone, of the type we’d already imposed in Libya and elsewhere, to negate the insuperable advantage of Assad’s air force.

        • Hogan says:

          that would have had an excellent chance of succeeding

          That’s the can opener we’re being asked to assume.

        • vic rattlehead says:

          The article’s kind of meh. The dude’s a dermatologist. Which is…good for him, but he’s hardly an authority on this, so you trotting out “READ TEH ARTICKUL I SIGH TED” is kind of amusing.

          Also, he’s too close to the issue. Which is why I don’t listen to my Cuban family grumbling about American policy on Cuba. He’s a non-specialist with an obvious emotional investment. Cite a better source or stop trotting it out.

          • Bitter Scribe says:

            Yeah, those people who are “too close to the issue” should just shut up because they’re “kind of meh.” It’s just so “amusing.”

  11. Major Kong says:

    I see the Syrians are already using that base to launch air strikes.

    That was just $80 million worth of geopolitical performance art.

  12. Troll Comment Deleted says:

    Troll Comment Deleted

  13. NewishLawyer says:

    I have a random observation/question on the “enemy of my enemy is my friend”

    A guy I knew in grad school just posted a meme on FB on why the US might not like Syria and the reasons were stuff like “Syria is GMO free” and “Syria dropped the US dollar” and such. Basic hippie/leftie/anti-Corporate America stuff (ironically the guy teaches at a charter school.)

    Trump’s actions are morally indefensible and dangerous but I am kind of gobsmacked that someone could post such clear propaganda just because Trump did something. That should not turn Assad into a friend of the left. I’m pretty sure this guy posted pro-refugee stuff before and anti-Muslim ban stuff.

    Is the enemy of my enemy is my friend that powerful as a pull?

    • It is to people with authoritarian modes of thought. It’s worth noting that Political Compass uses it as a question to evaluate a person’s authoritarian tendencies. Given that authoritarianism tends towards black and white thinking, it also tends towards thinking that there are only two sides to an issue. Recognizing that there are often multiple sides to an issue means recognizing that there can be more than two sides to a conflict, and thus that the enemy of one’s enemy is not necessarily one’s friend. Many people never seem to come to this realisation, and I think it’s all related.

    • econoclast says:

      I think a lot of people are just dumb, or at least situationally intellectually lazy. “Enemy of my enemy” is a heuristic. I’m sure you catch yourself doing sometimes yourself (I know I do), but you have the intellectual integrity to stop yourself and think “Wait, that doesn’t make any sense.”

      In a simpler age, I would have assumed that “Syria is GMO free” is satire.

  14. ForkyMcSpoon says:

    I hope that Democrats (*cough* Hillary Clinton included *cough*) who might otherwise be inclined to support hawkish policies remember to make this alteration to any military policy considerations…

    “The US should do [some sort of military intervention] in [country]”

    should be

    “The US military, as commanded by impulsive ignoramus Donald Trump, should do [some sort of military intervention] in [country]”

    It immediately makes any sort of military intervention less appealing.

  15. pseudalicious says:

    According to HR McMaster, the US intentionally avoided targeting buildings suspected of holding gas stockpiles.

    Wouldn’t blowing up a bunch of sarin gas… sent… sarin gas everywhere? I’m happy to be corrected.

    • econoclast says:

      Apparently sarin is normally stored in two components that by themselves aren’t dangerous. But I suppose that was the source of US caution.

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