April 5, 2017

Reaction to Syrian chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun - the American calculus

If you have not listened to the above video clip please do - it is only about 25 seconds, but it speaks volumes. Rarely do we find such clarity in diplomatic rhetoric. Ambassador Haley undoubtedly cleared this with the White House.

Ambassador Haley: "When the United Nations consistently fails to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action." (my emphasis)

I have to admit that I am surprised at the almost universal outrage at the latest Syrian regime chemical weapons attack on its own people. These attacks have been taking place for years, yet it usually gets very little media attention.

You will remember the initial furor over Syrian chemical weapons usage, the nerve agent attack on the opposition-occupied eastern suburbs of Damascus in the pre-dawn hours of August 21, 2013. That attack involved sarin gas delivered by artillery rockets, which killed well in excess of 1,000 people, almost all of them innocent civilians.

The attack easily crossed a "red line" declared by U.S. President Barack Obama in 2012. Revisionist historians - and President Obama himself - have tried to equivocate on whether or not a red line had been drawn.

Here are the President's words on August 20, 2012: "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

His own press secretary further elaborated, "As the President said yesterday in terms of Syria, we’re watching very closely the stockpile of Syrian chemical weapons; that any use or proliferation of efforts related to those chemical weapons is something that would be very serious and it would be a grave mistake. There are important international obligations that the Syrian regime must live up to in terms of the handling of their chemical weapons. And the officials who have that responsibility will be held accountable for their actions and will be held accountable for living up to those international obligations."

Ah, that's a red line.

After the attack, the President opted not to take military action, not to hold anyone accountable. That opened the way for the Russians to enter the crisis with what many believe was a better solution - an agreement by which the Syrians would declare their chemical weapons stockpile and allow them to be removed from the country for destruction.

Had it actually gone according to the agreement, the resulting removal and destruction would have been a good thing. Unfortunately, it appears that the Syrians retained some of their chemical weapons.

The downside of President Obama's decision to not enforce his own red line was the damage to the credibility of the United States and its foreign policy in the region. In the West, it appeared that the United States had taken the high road and engineered a diplomatic solution to the crisis. In the Middle East, however, his failure to follow through on what was, in essence, an ultimatum was regarded as weakness.

Additionally, the seeming naïveté that the Syrians would actually rid themselves of what their senior military and government officials regard as a strategic deterrent against Israel - Syria's ballistic missile arsenal armed with chemical weapons, including the deadly agent VX - actually emboldened the Syrians and their allies in the fight against the opposition.

The scope of the casualties in the April 4 attack in Khan Shaykhun brought all this back to the forefront. Listening to the President and especially Ambassador Haley today, I believe that there is serious consideration in the Trump Administration of launching a military strike on Syrian regime targets.

I am sure the planners at the Pentagon are preparing a wide range of options for the President. I will leave that to them. There are, however, some important considerations that need to be a part of the calculus.

The wild card, probably the most important of the considerations, is the Russians. The Russians are in Syria to ensure the survival of the Syrian regime, despite their claims that they are they to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In return for their support, Russia has secured long-term (49-year initial leases with renewal options) access to Syrian naval facilities and an air base.

Part of Russia's role in ensuring the survival of the regime is to protect it from United Nations action. The Trump Administration realizes full well that it is very unlikely that the international body will be able to take meaningful action against Syria. Russia was decidedly obstructionist as the issue was debated in the Security Council. That is what prompted Ambassador Haley's direct remarks.

I am of the opinion that the United States and Russia have begun to cooperate in the fight against ISIS. The best example of this is the marginalization of the Turks through an agreement between the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Russian-backed Syrian regime.

The SDF, composed of Syrian Kurds and Arabs, allowed the regime to move into territory it had taken from ISIS, effectively isolating the Turkish-backed and supported Free Syrian Army (FSA). That agreement would require the blessing of both the Russians and Americans. Is punishing the Syrian regime for its chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun worth jeopardizing future cooperation with Russia? See my earlier piece, Russian and American cooperation in Syria - a policy change?

Any American military action against Syrian facilities runs the risk of ending what nascent cooperation with Russia exists now, or may in the future. Under President Trump, American policy had changed to focus on the defeat of ISIS - the removal of Bashar al-Asad was in effect taken off the table. That may change in the aftermath of this horrific chemical weapons attack.

Let us also not forget that the Russians have a sizable military presence in Syria - naval units, capable air-to-air fighter aircraft and a state-of-the-art air defense system. If they detect an attack on their Syrian allies, will they confront the attackers militarily? Are we willing to start an armed confrontation with the Russians over this incident?

This chemical attack has galvanized world public opinion over the Syrian use of chemicals on innocent civilians. It almost demands a military response. The United States is arguably the best, maybe only, force willing and able to deliver that response. In the words of Ambassador Haley, we may be "compelled to take our own action."

I am not against such a military response to this Syrian provocation, but we have to ask - is it worth the price?