Syria: One and Done, and Nothing Really Changes

Before we go on to Syria — does anyone remember Trump’s big announcement last August that he was calling for a troop increase in Afghanistan?

President Trump outlined a revised vision for the U.S. war in Afghanistan on Monday, pledging to end a strategy of “nation-building” and instead institute a policy aimed more squarely at addressing the terrorist threat that emanates from the region. …

… But Trump provided few specifics about his policy and how much the U.S. military commitment in the region would increase as a result, insisting that conditions on the ground would determine troop levels and strategy.

What sticks in my head most vividly is a conversation I overheard the next day, in which some locals were telling each other with some excitement that Trump was going to bring back the draft. They were anticipating a major military action in Afghanistan. And I’m thinking, seriously? This is nothing but the usual blah blah blah. In a couple of weeks nobody will remember anything about it. And I was right. There was a modest increase in troops, btw, that nobody seems to have noticed.

This morning I saw someone on social media declaring that we were back at war, and I’m thinking, probably not. It’s not clear to me that yesterday’s strike on Syria was any different from other strikes on Syria. This is just what we do in the absence of having a plan; we periodically fire missiles at Syria.

Krishnadev Calamur writes at the Atlantic:

It was a dramatic action at the end of a dramatic few days. But we’ve seen a version of this before. What’s different about these strikes, Trump said: “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.” And, as Dunford pointed out later, while the previous strike hit one facility, this one struck three. And while the last one was unilateral, this one involved the British and the French.

But, as was the case with the last strike, we won’t immediately know how effective Friday’s strikes were in stopping further chemical attacks—or what will happen should Russia intervene militarily.

This year’s Syria air strike was bigger than last year’s Syria air strike, but I’m not seeing anyone who thinks it will make any long-term difference. The goal seems to have been to make a show of doing something without doing so much something that there would be any retaliation. Trump may have said that he is “prepared to sustain” whatever you want to call yesterday’s strikes, but Secretary of Defense James Mattis said this was a “one-time shot.” It appears Trump’s administration pays less and less attention to Trump. It’s the only way it can function at all.

Just as a sign of how bleeped this all is, Trump actually tweeted “mission accomplished!” this morning. I’m not kidding.

Lives lost, families blown apart. But we have cool missiles!

Most of the smart people are saying that the “result” is that Assad has won. Krishnadev Calamur concluded,

Any damage sustained to Syrian military facilities can be repaired by Assad’s benefactors, Russia and Iran. Assad has all but won the conflict at a great cost: More than 500,000 people have been killed, the war has created more than 5 million refugees, and entire cities have been flattened. Unless the U.S. supplements Friday’s actions with a broader military role in Syria—one that neither the president nor the American public has the appetite for—Assad will not only remain in power, but also retain his ability to target his people.

Juan Cole:

In our age of politics as reality show, where we have hired the star of NBC’s “Apprentice” to play president (apparently in large part because he is both consistently awful and highly entertaining at once), even geopolitics is done for show.

The United States, France and the UK lost the Syrian War to Russia and Iran. It is all over but the shouting. They had hoped that the al-Assad regime, which had been a thorn in their sides for decades, would be overthrown. It isn’t an ignoble hope. It is a horrible, Stalinist regime with massive amounts of blood on its hands. But the reasons for which Washington, Paris and London wanted it gone were not necessarily noble ones. Syria is among the last states to reject Israel. Its secular elites reached out, isolated after the end of the Cold War, to Iran for support. Its system does not accommodate the Western corporate take-over of the country’s economy. Overthrowing countries that buck the neoliberal, barracuda capitalist Washington consensus and challenge the neocolonial order in the Middle East (with the assumption of Israeli hegemony in the Levant) is a no-brainer for the North Atlantic powers. …

… The missile attacks are for domestic politics, and perhaps to some extent a demonstration of political will to Russia and Iran. As military history they are a footnote.

Those who argue that they were necessary to show resistance to the use of chemical weapons are missing some things. The West backed Saddam Hussein’s use of chem in the Iraq-Iran War. It is hard to see why killing children with chlorine differs from the point of view of the children from killing them with bombs. Military action should be taken in accordance with international law. And, deploying missile strikes ineffectually renders them less effective politically down the road.

These strikes are like when a fistfight breaks out on the reality show Big Brother. The show will go on next week.

It’s worth reading Juan Cole all the way through; he explains what’s actually going on better than most of the big media outlets. And for all the chest-thumping going on in Washington, the more telling news is this:

Moscow met the limited American-led airstrikes against Syria before dawn on Saturday with plenty of bluster and heated rhetoric, starting with an uncharacteristically quick response from President Vladimir V. Putin condemning the attack and accusing the United States of aggravating the humanitarian situation.

But there was also a palpable sense of relief.

The sun was barely up before the Defense Ministry, not famous for speedy reactions, pumped out a statement underscoring that none of the thousands of Russian troops garrisoned in Syria had been threatened by the American, British and French attack and that none of its air defense systems had been mobilized.

This just in: Pro-Assad official says targeted bases were evacuated on Russian warning. Of course they were.

Right now my email in box is clogged with messages from various groups asking me to help stop Trump’s illegal strikes in Syria (by sending them money). I suspect the strikes are over already — for a while, anyway. Until next time somebody decides we have to Do Something about Assad.

13 thoughts on “Syria: One and Done, and Nothing Really Changes

  1. Thank God for Juan Cole – without him we'd never know what was going on. This is hardly an original thought, but I'm certain the strikes were part of the campaign to discredit Comey, by giving the Sunday morning hosts something else to talk about. And Trump even warned Russia a few days ago to get out of the way.

    I’ve been watchng the trailer for “Wag the Dog”.

  2. Very good piece by Cole, I think. Syria is just a huge, confusing mess, and I'm seeing so much ideologically-driven weirdness of every kind , especially since I use twitter more than I probably ought to. 

    Assad apparently has followed this very Machiavellian strategy of jailing or killing democratically-inclined protesters while emptying the prisons of jihadists to flood the rebellion and leave him as the indispensable man. So it's hard to see much we can do to improve the situation, even assuming good intentions. But no, neither the 40 people who may or may not have been killed with chemical weapons nor this bit of muscle-flexing seems like that huge of a deal compared to all that's happened just in this battle, let alone the whole war.

  3. The Syrian's are laughing at us. Dotard is whittling away his facade as the big bad ass commander in chief. When your actions don't rise to the level of your rhetoric you begin to be seen a paper tiger who just runs at the mouth. Remember Muammar Kaddafi with his threat of "not crossing the line of death", or Saddam Hussein with his threat of the "mother of all battles"? Now Dotard is threatening any country who won't bend to his will with an idle threat of "fire and fury, the likes of which the world has never seen". It turns out that Dotard isn't the big bad, all powerful commander he likes to portray himself as on twitter.

     His response to Syria was so lame that the Syrians are walking around wondering whether the whole episode is fake news. They are laughing at him.

  4. Well, isn't it time we did the right thing in Syria, and followed it with high moral praise for our aggressive actions.  It seems chemical weapons and their use are the new taboo.  Not only that but the UK and France joined the wrath of deities force and provided at least some semblance of support some of which was moral. 

    But before you get overcome by fits of jingoistic righteousness think this through.  What did they do.  They bombed chemical factories.  Are these not the same people who claim guns don't kill people, people kill people.  I guess if you replace chemicals in the sentence, the whole moral picture changes.  What do you expect from people who violently oppose abortion yet revere the death penalty.  My problem is going with the notion that reason and logic is necessary for moral judgement.  We seem to have developed moral judgement that defies reason, which at least some of us think is an untenable position.  Did I mention cluster bombs dropped on civilian targets?  If the chemicals are explosive and indiscriminately spew bolts and nails they cross no red line?  I guess to bit brains of the good-bad alt world manichaeistic morality this is a shade of grey they find intolerable and impossible to comprehend.

  5. The military strike in Syria is a story with a half-life of about 12 hours. If it's "wag the dog", it's about three strokes of a pug's tail. Assad has won the war to the degree there is no organized resistance left. There are so many militarized factions remaining that it's a victory almost more expensive than a defeat. What the coalition was telling Assad is that the cheap and dirty way of trying to quell resistance – chemical weapons from the air – won't be allowed. He's stuck in an endless insurgency which Assad can wage but only with conventional, expensive methods which will never allow Assad to consolidate power over territory much beyond Damascus City Limits. If Russia invests heavily in that insurgency, they have to do it with a crippled economy, if the world community refuses to accept Russia's military presence in Syria and Ukraine. Sanctions are really hurting Russia. Short message to Assad and Putin – you won but you're bloody well screwed by your victory.

  6. I wonder how much news feeds curated through web platforms are responsible for an accelerating proliferation of loopy personal disinformation bubbles.


  7. As I've had time to think about this, it occurs to me we don't even have any way to know what it was they actually hit. Assad and the Russians claim he was not manufacturing chemical weapons. Let's just suppose that's true and see where that gets us. I have read that many factories and large businesses in Syria have their own water purification plants, because the chance of the municipal water plant getting blown up is significantly greater than zero. Of course these treatment plants would have tanks of chlorine gas on their premises. There would also have to be plants producing tanks of chlorine gas, just as there are plants producing tanks of acetylene gas and nitrogen gas and oxygen.

    I recall an incident, was it 1996?, when Bill Clinton made a big deal out of bombing an Al Qaeda poison gas factory in Sudan. At the time the Sudanese government said the plant was not producing sarin gas. A few years later, stories started coming out that <i>at the time of the bombing</i> the plant, which <b>may</b> have been used to produce toxic chemicals at some previous time, was producing either medicines or baby formula, and that its destruction resulted in quite a lot of suffering.

    I don't know what they meant to target, but given the stories that we've been seeing for years, I don't think what we hit was what our "intelligence" people thought was there. And given the Russian claim that the Syrians shot down 71 of the 103 missiles launched, we don't know whether the targets were hit or not.

    • Procopius — Right; we have no way to know what Trump’s strike actually hit. No one knowledgeable about the region seems to think the strikes are going to change anything. I understand an international team of weapons experts has just now been allowed into the Douma to inspect the damage.

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