It’s easy to get caught up in the emotional damage of war-torn Syria, as President Donald Trump learned this week. War is hell.
But in this civil war, there’s no clear moral victor to support. There’s no defender of liberty, or of the innocent and poor. There’s no promise of democracy, civil rights, or even basic human rights. There is no chivalrous knight in shining armor, only many bad actors concerned with their own interests.
We really don’t even know for certain if Syrian leader Bashar Assad ordered the Sarin nerve gas against his own civilians or if it was the rebels. A Monday Washington Times article citing a U.N. source “strongly suggests” it was the rebels. Trump and other western leaders blamed Assad.
But the point is, that either the Syrian government (such as it is) or the rebels, or, for that matter, ISIS, is capable of these atrocities without batting an eyelash.
Assad will never willingly step down
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the media today that “steps are underway” to organize a coalition to remove Assad. He said that while waiting for Trump to arrive at Mar a Lago for meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“It’s a serious matter, it requires a serious response,” Tillerson said, adding the recent attack “violates all previous U.N. resolutions, violates international norms and long-held agreements.”
But after years of war, it’s obvious that Assad will never willingly step down. Like the Shah of Iran in 1978, there’s no place Assad could go and be welcome. His Baath Party is dominated by Syria’s Alawite minority, which has oppressed the Sunni majority for over four decades. Even if Assad were to agree to leave, the Alawites would be devastated by whatever leader took his place.
In 2015, Sam Dagher reported for the Wall Street Journal:
Since the start of the conflict, the Syrian army has been hollowed out in large measure, according to defectors and officials close to Iran. They say that Alawite army officers have been removed from their regular posts and seconded to ad hoc units made up of loyalist militiamen and members of the security and intelligence agencies, often overseen by Hezbollah.
Tens of thousands of Alawites have been mustered into militias such as the so-called National Defense Force or those linked to pro-regime businesspeople. The incentive is usually money, several told me: Militia salaries can be double or triple those of army officers. “Our people are emotional and poor,” said a young lawyer from a mountain village. “It’s a pity all these young men are dying for nothing.”
Five years ago, I personally heard a briefing from an Israeli intelligence officer that Assad would never willingly leave, which is why Israel has been very quiet and behind the scenes about a giant war and threat on its northern border. Israel has confined itself to ensuring (as much as possible) that weapons like Sarin don’t find their way into the hands of the Iran-backed terrorist organization Hezbollah.
The only option to defeat Assad is to kill him. Killing him is not as easy as it seems.
Russia has real interests in Syria
A pair of tweets by the AP indicate that Russia may be “softening” on support for Assad, but that support runs deep.
BREAKING: A Kremlin spokesman tells AP Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar Assad is "not unconditional."
— The Associated Press (@AP) April 6, 2017
BREAKING: Kremlin spokesman tells AP Russia wants a full investigation into the chemical weapons attack in Syria.
— The Associated Press (@AP) April 6, 2017
Russia does business with Syria–military business, as in selling weapons. It’s a source of cash, and Syria is considered to be within Russia’s “sphere of influence” by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Back in 2013, Max Fisher (a terribly unreliable reporter, best known for his “bridge to Gaza,” but here he’s fairly on target, because he’s not writing about Israel) gave four reasons Russia is keeping Assad around, writing in the Washington Post.
1. Russia has a naval installation in Syria, which is strategically important and Russia’s last foreign military base outside the former Soviet Union.
2. Russia still has a bit of a Cold War mentality, as well as a touch of national insecurity, which makes it care very much about maintaining one of its last military alliances.
3. Russia also hates the idea of “international intervention” against countries like Syria because it sees this as Cold War-style Western imperialism and ultimately a threat to Russia.
4. Syria buys a lot of Russian military exports, and Russia needs the money.
These interests basically haven’t changed in the last four years. Sure, now Putin is dealing with Trump, not Obama. But don’t expect Russia to let Assad be taken out without them keeping influence (i.e. their man in Damascus).
Many Syrian rebels are monsters, others are incapable of governing
Israel considers the Syrian rebels to be more of a threat to it than Assad.
Israeli security services and intelligence agencies have been following the phenomenon with understandable concern, much like their counterparts in the west, where thousands of Islamists have left to join the ranks of rebel groups, including ISIS. Among the Syrian opposition forces are a range of avowedly anti-western and anti-Israel Islamist groups, and the fear is that Israeli Arabs who go to fight alongside them could one day return (as Shurbaji did) – battle-hardened and radicalized – to pose a genuine threat to Israel’s security.
Here’s the problem with the rebels: they are a group with radically different beliefs and interests thrown together out of a mutual hatred of Assad. Some are aligned with Sunni radicals, some are aligned with Iran, some are more secular and western. With Assad gone, they’ll turn on each other and war will continue.
It will be like what happened with Libya when Moammar Gaddafi was killed. The Obama administration was foolish to believe that Libya could pull itself together after over 40 years of Gaddafi’s rule. Aligning with the Kurds will alienate Turkey; the Islamic Front is aligned with Al Queda; the Free Syrian Army is more moderate but likely unable to pull enough support to govern.
A post-Assad Syria will continue to be a bloody mess of refugees, atrocities, and power struggles. What will America do in that quagmire?
ISIS and Iran are the biggest threats
Who wants Syria for themselves? ISIS is first on the list–Syria is even in its name (although Obama called them “ISIL”). To do anything with Syria, ISIS must be removed. And removing ISIS requires that the Syrian government and military forces allow freedom of tactical and strategic movement on Syrian territory. This is how Russians have been able to work.
It’s moral quicksand, making quid pro quo arrangements with a monster like Assad, but the Russians don’t care much about the moral high ground. They’re likely only making “bad dog” gestures now to calm Trump down a bit.
Trump’s first instincts, to take out ISIS, are correct. Doing so, and arming the Kurds on the Iraqi border to help with this, is the best way to begin to unravel the Gordian knot of Syrian conflict. Taking out ISIS will allow whatever forces occupy the vacuum to keep Iran from coming in. Israel will not allow (as much as they can) WMD’s to move from Syria to Hezbollah or other terror groups. Destabilizing Syria and handing it over to Iran makes things worse for Israel–and for the region’s stability.
War is hell
Unfortunately, Syria is hell. Children are dying. Nerve agents, bombs, land mines, and artillery are used against civilians. Babies are being slaughtered. Why have 5 million Syrians fled as refugees? Because 11 million have been displaced during the war. That’s over half the country’s population according to Christian humanitarian organization World Vision.
Sentiment and emotional responses don’t make for good policy. There are no great options in Syria. There is no way for America to come in and save the children, protect the innocent, and punish the bad guys. Most of the people fighting are bad guys.
The best option is to deal with the worst of the bad guys, the ones with ideological and cohesive plans, and no compunction of using terror, against civilians, and against American interests. Then we can deal with justice against monsters like Assad. But before we go and decapitate the Syrian government, we need to know what will grow in place of that head.
Going in blindly like Obama did in Libya just invites chaos, destruction, and more death. It’s time that President Trump learned the grisly truth. War is hell.