Syrian war crimes, Russian complicity, and the U.S. response

Last week, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, announced a major shift in U.S. Policy towards Syria: U.S. priority on Syria no longer focused on ‘getting Assad out’:

The United States’ diplomatic policy on Syria for now is no longer focused on making the war-torn country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, leave power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said on Thursday, in a departure from the Obama administration’s initial and public stance on Assad’s fate.

The view of the Trump administration is also at odds with European powers, who insist Assad must step down. The shift drew a strong rebuke from at least two Republican senators.

“You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told a small group of reporters.

“Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No,” she said. “What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria.”

In Ankara on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad’s longer-term status “will be decided by the Syrian people.

This was a day after ambassador Haley accused Russia, Iran and the “Assad regime” of committing war crimes.

A senior Trump administration official told Reuters that Haley’s remarks reflected “a measure of just realism, accepting the facts on the ground. … Assad is never going to have sufficient force to reassert control over the whole country. … Our focus is on defeating ISIS and al Qaeda and preventing Syria from being used as a terrorist safe haven.”

It conveniently concedes to the Russians what they most want, maintaining their patron-client state relationship with Syria and preserving their puppet Assad regime.

On Tuesday, the Assad regime committed yet another war crime. The New York Times reports, Worst Chemical Attack in Years in Syria; U.S. Blames Assad:

One of the worst chemical bombings in Syria turned a northern rebel-held area into a toxic kill zone on Tuesday, inciting international outrage over the ever-increasing government impunity shown in the country’s six-year war.

Dozens of people, including children, died — some writhing, choking, gasping or foaming at the mouth — after breathing in poison that possibly contained a nerve agent or other banned chemicals, according to witnesses, doctors and rescue workers. They said the toxic substance spread after warplanes dropped bombs in the early morning hours. Some rescue workers grew ill and collapsed from proximity to the dead.

The opposition-run Health Department in Idlib Province, where the attack took place, said 69 people had died, providing a list of their names. The dead were still being identified, and some humanitarian groups said as many as 100 had died.

Western leaders including President Trump blamed the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and called on its patrons, Russia and Iran, to prevent a recurrence of what many described as a war crime.

Oh, Trump did more than that. He attempted to politicize this atrocity and to blame it on the Obama administration, ignoring the fact that his policy shift on Syria last week may have signaled weakness to Bashar al-Assad, emboldening him to believe that he can get away with anything and the U.S. will not act to stop him. Trump Hypocrisy: Blaming Syrian Chemical Attack on Obama:

White House Press Secretary “Baghdad Sean” Spicer was quick to blame—of course—former President Barack Obama:

“Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people including women and children is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world,” Spicer told reporters. “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.” Spicer also said: “President Obama said in 2012 he would establish a red line against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable act.” (Later in the day, the White House issued a statement echoing Spicer’s remarks.)

It will come as no surprise at this point that the Trump White House’s position was hypocritical. First, Obama’s red line at the time was a threat of US military action against Syria should it continue to use chemical weapons. When Obama asked the GOP-led Congress to authorize the potential use of force against Syria, the Republicans, not wanting to take a firm stance, declined to hold a vote. Still, Obama’s move prompted Assad to agree to a Russian-brokered deal to give up his chemical weapons. [The Organization For the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons certified “the completes destruction of all chemical weapons declared by the Syrian Arab Republic” in January 2016. Destruction of Syrian chemical weapons completed.] To a degree, Obama’s threat worked.

Whether or not Obama’s policy in 2013 was successful, this much is clear: at that point, Trump had an unambiguous position regarding Syria— do nothing. Throughout this episode, Trump tweeted up a storm about Syria. Repeatedly, he declared—occasionally in all-caps!—that Obama should not be messing around in Syria. He said there was no reason to attack Syria or take any action there. Let the Arab League deal with the problem. He was asserting that Obama should not respond to the chemical attacks—a policy certainly in sync with Assad (and his Russian patrons). Stay out of this, Trump demanded, and focus on domestic issues.

This article catalogues Trump’s numerous tweets on Syria in 2013. The New York Times fact checker does the same. Fact Check: Trump, Faulting Obama on Syria, Contradicts Himself.

The Times report continues:

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, who had said that Mr. Assad’s fate “will be decided by the Syrian people,” struck a sharply different tone on Tuesday, urging Mr. Assad’s allies Russia and Iran “to exercise their influence over the Syrian regime and to guarantee that this sort of horrific attack never happens again.”

Mr. Tillerson added that “Russia and Iran also bear great moral responsibility for these deaths.”

[A] State Department official who briefed reporters in Washington said Russian officials were trying to evade their responsibility because Russia and Iran were guarantors of the Assad government’s commitment to adhere to a cease-fire in the peace talks that the Kremlin had helped organize in Astana.

Today there is a marked shift in tone from the Trump administration. Trump’s View of Syria and Assad Altered After ‘Unacceptable’ Chemical Attack:

President Trump said on Wednesday that this week’s devastating chemical weapons attack in Syria had changed his view of the brutal civil war in that country, though he declined to say how the United States would respond.

Mr. Trump said the images of death inside Syria in the aftermath of the chemical attacks “crosses many lines, beyond a red line, many many lines.” And he said that the death of “innocent children, innocent babies, little babies” has made him reassess the situation and Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

“It’s very, very possible, and I will tell you it has already happened, that my attitude toward Syria and Assad, has changed very much,” Mr. Trump said as he stood next to King Abdullah of Jordan in the Rose Garden for a news conference with reporters.

Before the chemical attack, Mr. Trump’s administration had repeatedly said it did not intend to pursue the ouster of Mr. Assad. As recently as Tuesday, Mr. Trump’s spokesman said doing so would be “silly” in the face of the political realities in the country.

Mr. Trump on Wednesday appeared to hint at a shift in that policy, though he offered only vague assertions that the aftermath of the chemical attack is “unacceptable” to him. Pressed on what his policy will be, Mr. Trump said it would be unwise to reveal any plans his administration might have.

A shift could suggest that Mr. Trump is considering military action through aircraft or missile strikes, much the way that former President Barack Obama debated — and ultimately rejected — options in the wake of a similar chemical attack by the Syrian government in 2013.

“I’m not saying I’m doing anything one way or the other,” Mr. Trump said, telling the reporter who asked the question: “But I’m certainly not going to be telling you, as much as I respect you.”

And, of course, Trump went back to the well one more time, because he cannot stop himself:

Mr. Trump on Wednesday repeated his belief that Mr. Obama bears blame for the chemical attacks because he declared that the use of chemical weapons by Syria would “cross a red line” and then declined to follow up on that threat by using military force. [A Tea-Publican Congress failed to even debate an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against the sovereign state of Syria. Prior authorizations for use of force in Afghanistan and Iraq do not apply to Syria. Trump was adamantly opposed to any military action in Syria at that time, and right up until Tuesday.]

“I think the Obama administration had a great opportunity to solve this crisis,” Mr. Trump said. “When he didn’t cross that line, after making the threat, I think that set us back a long ways. It was a blank threat.”

U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley Says U.S. May ‘Take Our Own Action’ on Syrian Chemical Attack:

Holding photographs of dead Syrian children after a suspected chemical bomb attack, the United States ambassador to the United Nations warned on Wednesday that her country might take unilateral action if the Security Council failed to respond to the latest atrocity in the Syria war.

Facing her first serious Syria showdown at the Security Council, the ambassador, Nikki R. Haley, also used her remarks at an emergency session to blame Russia for blocking a robust response to the attack on Tuesday on a northern Syrian town, which has incited widespread condemnation. The death toll was reported to exceed 100.

The United States, France and Britain have accused the Syrian government of responsibility and bitterly criticized Russia — Syria’s main ally in the six-year-old war — for objecting to a resolution they drafted condemning the attack.

“Time and time again Russia uses the same false narrative to deflect attention from their allies in Damascus,” Ms. Haley said. “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”

She closed her remarks with an ominous warning. “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action,” she said. “For the sake of the victims, I hope the rest of the council is finally willing to do the same.”

She did not provide further details. But Ms. Haley’s threat of unilateral action appeared to reflect the tough attitude adopted by President Trump and his aides toward the United Nations.

Towards the United Nations, but not towards Russia and their patron-client state of Syria. Trump still has not said anything about Russia’s complicity as Assad’s protector.

Are we now going from the Realpolitik foreign policy announced just last week, as the New York Times analyzes today, For Trump, a Focus on U.S. Interests and a Disdain for Moralizing, to a return to the Bush Doctrine of unilateral military action?

This may already be underway. Senator Chris Murphy recently wrote at the Huffington Post that Trump Is Dragging Us Into Another War And No One Is Talking About It:

President Donald Trump has been busy dramatically expanding the American troop presence inside Syria. And virtually no one in Washington has noticed. Americans have a right to know what Trump is planning and whether this will lead to an Iraq-style occupation of Syria for years to come.

Without any official notification, Trump sent 500 new American troops into Syria, ostensibly to take part in the upcoming assault on the so-called Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa. News reports suggest this deployment may just be the tip of the iceberg, with some saying that the plan is for hundreds more American troops to be added to the fight in the coming weeks. No one actually knows how many troops are inside Syria now, because the administration has largely tried to keep the build-up a secret.

This deployment poses a significant, potentially catastrophic risk for the United States and the future of Syria and the Middle East. Congress cannot be silent on this matter.

After discussing what is happening in Syria, Senator Murphy concludes: “I do not want to Americans to die and billions of dollars to be wasted in a war that makes the same mistakes as the disastrous American invasion of Iraq. And I certainly don’t want the war to start in secret, without Congress even noticing that it’s starting. Congress needs to get in the game and start asking questions – before it’s too late.”

And what happens when this proxy war between nuclear superpowers in Syria results in American fighter jets shooting down Russian fighter jets, or Russian ground troops shooting at and killing American ground troops? This proxy war suddenly escalates into a direct nuclear superpower confrontation. If that happens, who is to say that China and North Korea will not press their advantage in the Far East? This is how countries stumble into a world war. Are we prepared for that possibility?

2 Responses to Syrian war crimes, Russian complicity, and the U.S. response

  1. I did not want a syrian war with obama and I don’t want a syrian war under trump. we get into these and never get out. don’t make syria arabic for vietnam like iraq and afganistan already are. remember the parable of the elephant and the ants.

  2. AzBM, You try very hard to minimize Obana’s role in this mess. But Obama looked America in eye during a press conference and said chemical weapons were no longer a problem because they had all been destroyed as a result of his negotiations. Much as all of you correctly condemned Bush for prematurely declaring victory in the Iraq War, you should also hold Obama accountable for prematurely declaring victory in Syria over chemical and nerve gas weapons being eradicated when he said they were. Trump was correct in pointing it out because everyone depended on Obama’s declaration and Obama was wrong.

    Ignoring all that, Trump faces an impossible choice: He can either (1) Put troops on the ground and engage Assad and Russia in varying degrees of committment, or (2) He can refuse to get involved and just issue statements against what happens and condemn Assad and Russia.

    Option 1 is a bad idea because it is a wayto get sucked into an all out war with Russia. That has so many obvious negative outcomes that I not even going to list them here. Suffice it to say it is not a good option.

    Option 2 is also a bad idea because we will show no force or action and Assad and Russia will view it as capitulation and ignore whatever threats we might make. Without us, there will be no international response because, like it or not, we are the leader of the free world.

    I don’t see an Option 3 out there, nor have I read of one. I think both Trump and Obama faced, and are facing, hobbesian choices and Syria presents the United States with a major world issue that can’t be ignored.