Last April, President Trump ordered up a Tomahawk missile strike against Syria’s Shayrat air base near the city of Homs. Fifty-nine missiles rained down on the base from which Assad’s air force had launched a chemical weapons attack against rebel held town of Khan Sheikhoun. Over 80 civilians died in that sarin nerve gas attack—almost a rounding error in the hundreds of thousands who have been butchered by Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies in Syria’s civil war.
In the attack’s wake a Pentagon spokesman declared the U.S. strike to be a “one off proportional response to Assad’s heinous act…” as a warning to Syria’s Assad and his Russian benefactors that the U.S. would not tolerate more chemical weapons attacks”—given Russia’s 2013 agreement to secure Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. However, in subsequent statements the Trump Administration reserved the right to punish Syria again if it continued to violate its pledge not to deploy chemical weapons.
Did anyone believe Assad would have been deterred by Trump’s action from using chemical weapons again? Not I.
Even as Assad’s forces gain the upper hand and are pounding the last rebel redoubts in and around Damascus and in Idlib Province, Assad continues to defy the United Nations and Washington by resorting to more chemical weapons attacks. And Russian President Putin (who committed that he would prevent Assad from using any more chemical weapons) wantonly defends the indefensible by instructing his senior diplomats to stonewall any proof that Assad is using chemical weapons.
To cover up Russia’s complicity in Assad’s war crimes Putin forced the UN Security Council to disband its panel (formally known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism) investigating violations of Assad’s chemical weapons pledge.
Just last month, Assad ordered up two chlorine gas attacks on Eastern Ghouta—a rebel-held suburb of Damascus—the same suburb which was the target on August 21, 2013 of sarin nerve gas attack which killed 1,400 people—the attack that prompted President Obama to declare his infamous, credibility-shattering Syrian color-blind red line.
Since Obama retreated from his threatened retaliation, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has catalogued six separate incidents of poison gas attacks by Assad’s forces, in Homs, Saraquib, Douma, and in three other population centers. Overall, since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Assad has deployed chemical weapons against his regime’s adversaries 33 times, according to war crimes investigators working for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons of the United Nations.
Lest we not forget that to avert a reluctant Obama reprisal from the most heinous attack in 2014, former Secretary of State John “peace in our time” Kerry—asserted he had brokered an ironclad deal with the Russians by which Assad vowed to never use chemical weapons again. Somehow, Kerry’s masterful handiwork did not bar Assad’s use of chlorine gas (Assad conveniently excluded chlorine gas from the list of chemical weapons he stashed away, and the Obama Administration failed to demand verifiable accountability to Assad’s stockpiles). Chlorine gas is nevertheless prohibited under the chemical weapons convention—of which Syria is a signatory. Another one of Kerry’s naïve statements for the history books.
The latest chlorine gas attack by Assad occurred a few days ago. On Feb 4th a Syrian regime helicopter, with the ID number 1253, dropped two barrels filled with chlorine gas on the city of Saraqib. Final casualty numbers are not in, but initial reports state that the attack resulted in more than 11 injuries including members of Syria’s civil defense team, according to Manhal Barish, an independent journalist.
Assad is also developing new methods for using his sarin and chlorine chemical weapons stockpiles. Aside from the horrific barrel bombs containing chlorine gas, his troops are now lobbing sarin gas hand grenades and gas rockets fired from Kaytusha-style rocket launchers.
So long as Assad and his Russian benefactors flout international law with impunity what would a second, stronger retaliatory U.S. attack accomplish, other than risk a Russian military retaliation against American forces in Syria, and then what?
It’s not as if Assad’s chemical weapons use is the Trump Administration’s only Syrian concern.
In a little noticed January 18th speech, Secretary of State Tillerson catapulted the U.S. further down the Syrian slippery slope by pledging to keep U.S. forces in Syria in order to: 1) defeat ISIS and Al Qaeda; 2) end Syria’s civil war, which must result in the departure of Assad; 3) reduce Iranian influence in Syria; 4) work for safe return of Syrian refugees; and last, but not least 5) achieve a Syria free of weapons of mass destruction. These goals are so sweeping and so inconsistent with President Trump’s commitment not to fall into new foreign entanglements that one wonders what was Tillerson thinking.
Looks to me like wildly major mission creep—especially since, by inference, Tillerson’s Syrian doctrine committed the U.S. to defend from Turkish attack the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units known as the YPG who were key to our success in liberating ISIS from Raqqa and of northeast Syria. The battle to cleanse ISIS from Syria is now in fear of faltering as two NATO allies (U.S. and Turkey) confront each other over the YPG, which Turkey claims is a terrorist organization in cahoots with its number one Kurdish nemesis, the PKK. Meanwhile, what remains of ISIS has hightailed it to northwest Syria where along with Al Qaeda forces, over 15,000 terrorists are operating—and U.S. forces are not operating in that part of Syria.
Memo to the White House: did President Trump sign off on Tillerson’s Vietnam/Afghanistan-style commitment, or did Tillerson go rogue?
Assuming Tillerson is speaking for Trump, little in his speech addressed in detail the growing threat which Hezbollah in Syria and Iran’s Shiite militias pose to Israel and the rising risk of war between Israel and Syria as a result. Nor did Tillerson lay out any strategic plan to prevent Iranian-backed Shiite militias from attacking U.S. forces and its Kurdish allies to bleed the 2000 U.S. forces out of Syria.
Although Israel has steadfastly insisted it will not be drawn into Syria’s civil war, new facts on the ground are changing Jerusalem’s equation—with significant consequence to U.S. policy in Syria.
Only recently has escalated attacks on Iranian weapons transfer to Hezbollah forces inside Syria, and so-called Iranian-controlled missile factories, such as the antiseptically named Jamraya Research & Information Center which is believed to be a major R&D site for missile development and Hezbollah training. The notoriously risk averse Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been asleep at the switch as Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah rapidly fill the vacuum created by the defeat of Free Syrian Army and Syrian regular forces across the Golan Heights frontier.
Far more ominous to Israel is the rapid deployment of covert Iranian Quds force troops in the southeast Syrian villages within striking distance of Israel’s Golan Heights, who now have a direct land line supply corridor to Tehran via Iraq. Israel’s media is full of reports indicating that it is just a matter of time before Israel launches an offensive in Syria and Lebanon against Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Shiite militias. How would an Israeli ground offensive into Syria—however limited given Israel’s own constraints—impact U.S. troops and U.S. goals? It could draw Iran into a direct military confrontation with both Israel and the U.S.
Neither the U.S. nor Israel are prepared for this scenario. It’s time they started doing so.