April 26, 2017

American, Israeli and Russian Context of the Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction and the “Retaliation Operation” in Syria

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 Vladimir (Zeev) Khanin


Born in Zaporizhzhya, he graduated from the Institute of Africa of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Ph. D. (political science). After repatriation, he taught at a number of educational institutions in Israel, lectured at the universities of Oxford and London. Author of many publications in the world media, wrote 9 books, co-author and editor of a number of collective monographs.

Cooperates with Voice of Israel Radio, Radio Liberty, TV Channel 9 of Israel.


The launch by US Navy destroyers Ross and Porter on the night of April 7 of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian army airbase Shayrat near the town of Homs became the official US response to the chemical weapons attack in the Khan-Sheikhun area in the Idlib province of April 4, resulting in the death of dozens and injuries/poisoning of hundreds of people. The United States and its allies assigned the responsibility for this to the regime of the Syrian President B. Assad, whereby his aviation became subject to a “retaliation operation”. At the same time, both, B. Assad himself and Russia (the latter in recent years has been providing diplomatic services, and since 2015, when the Russian military contingent appeared in Syria — has been ensuring the military-political survival of the Alawite regime ruling in Damascus) deny its involvement in the chemical attack, blaming the opponents of the official Damascus.

Dilemmas of the American Interest

The data on the consequences of the American missile strike are contradictory. The Russian Ministry of Defense has officially declared “low efficiency” of the attack by the US Navy (according to the press-secretary of the department “...only 23 of 59 missiles reached the Syrian airbase, and the place of the fall of the remaining 36 cruise missiles is unknown”). Representatives of the Pentagon, on the contrary, reported that 58 of 59 cruise missiles hit at least 44 targets in Shayrat, including two dozen Syrian military aircraft, fuel tanks, runways, warehouses with spare parts and ammunition, and other objects. And the head of the US Defense Department, James Mattis, later specified that during the attack 20 % of the operating Syrian Air Force units were destroyed, and the rest lost the opportunity to refuel or replenish ammunition on this base in the near future. So, according to the Secretary for Defense, “...Assad and Syria would be ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons”.

Probably, these circumstances were also meant by the US President, declaring that “...the missile strike at the airbase in Syria meets America's vital national interests”. So what is the American interest in this case, in terms of the new administration?

It is obvious that Donald Trump in this matter acted in accordance with his line on the elimination of the foreign policy legacy of his predecessor Barack Obama, whose actions, in the opinion of the current resident of the White House, had led to a significant inflation of the US “great power” status and inflicted a heavy blow to the country's reputation. In the Middle East context, in the opinion of Trump's team, part of this erroneous course was Obama's “bad” agreement of the great powers with Iran, which actually turned it into a state on the threshold of possession of nuclear weapons, and the equally problematic policy towards the Syrian Bashar Assad's regime.

Trump's main complaints in this sense are that Obama publicly demonstrated an unacceptable weakness in maintaining the established by Washington “red lines” of restraint, the main one being the use of weapons of mass destruction by Syrian government forces. Such a case took place in August 2013, when hundreds of people became victims of war chemical agents, mainly, according to observers, of peaceful Syrian citizens. Contrary to Damascus' refutations, and the “doubts” voiced by Moscow and Tehran, the Alawite regime's involvement in these chemical attacks, according to the US State Department's declaration and the UN's investigation (which called these attacks the most significant use of chemical weapons against civilians since its use by Saddam Hussein in Halabja in 1988) was declared unquestionable. Nevertheless, the US administration then instead of the promised use of force against Assad's regime, chose to make an agreement with Moscow, which resulted in Syria's consent to “listen to Russia's advice”, accede to the Convention on the Nonproliferation of Chemical Weapons and transfer its stores under international control for further destruction.

According to Obama, in that situation that was the best possible way out — for having fired not a single bullet and missile, he achieved more from Damascus than could be expected from any force decisions — and it was on this interpretation of events that the former President and members of his team kept insisting three years later. Thus, back in January 2017, being in his last days as the US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at the US Institute of Peace, presented the deal on chemical weapons in Damascus as one of the key achievements of the Obama administration in foreign policy in 2014 — along with “China's consent to help in the establishment of a deterrence mechanism for the DPRK, the ceasefire in southern Sudan, the interim agreement with Iran, and the progress in the formation of a new Iraqi government”. While, according to US media, Kerry himself did not have illusions about Damascus' statements on the transfer of “100 % of its military chemical materials”, as it had been declared by the then head of the State Department in the same year 2014.

Trump's opinion expressed by him during the election campaign and after his victory in the presidential election, was and is exactly the opposite: the medium- and long-term strategic costs of reputational losses of the United States of America, which refused to comply with their own ultimatum principles, significantly exceed the operational benefits of this deal. In this regard, the 94-year-old patriarch of the Arab-Israeli shuttle diplomacy, former US Secretary of State in R. Nixon's administration, Henry Kissinger, in the interview published shortly before the US Presidential election by the influential American monthly The Atlanic, said “...Credibility for a state plays the role of character for a human being. It provides a guarantee that its assurances can be relied upon by friends and its threats taken seriously by adversaries. It is [America's restoring this status] a key component of strategy, not a psychologically distinct break [of recent years]”.

It is this argument from Kissinger (who, according to some reports, is an unofficial foreign policy adviser to the new US President) was fully accepted by Donald Trump, especially because it is in line with giving up those components of his predecessor's foreign policy strategy which, according to the current host of the White House, had led to a significant inflation of the USA's status of a “great power”.

Actually, this was also recognized in Obama's team, although few, like the Defense Minister in his administration (in 2011–2013), Leon Panetta, were ready to admit that the content of the “chemical” deal with Assad, and most importantly, control over its realization was giving a rather “mixed message” to Assad, the Syrians, and the world in general. And so it damaged the American credibility. The situation, according to Trump, had to be corrected immediately. And, thus, Washington's reaction to the events in the Syrian province of Idlib was not spontaneous.


Liberals and Right-Wingers

The fact that this approach in the United States is not shared by all is not surprising. More interestingly, the disagreement over the revision of Obama's “new reading” of American interests went beyond the traditional disagreements between Democrats and Republicans. For example, the actions of the new administration were unexpectedly supported in the article published in the mouthpiece of the US Left-Liberal camp, The New York Times, the former US Deputy Secretary of State in the Obama administration, Antony Blinken. Even though at this he stated that the “retaliation strike” should not be the beginning of a large-scale military campaign, but a “prologue” to a new round of peace negotiations. Blinken's former boss, John Kerry, not only welcomed the forceful steps of the new administration in Syria, but expressed satisfaction with the speed of the reaction and suggested the strikes should continue until “positive shifts” were achieved.

The obvious contradiction between Kerry's current and above-mentioned statements, in his opinion, can be easily explained by the fact that “Obama actually never retreated from the “red lines” drawn by him and was ready to bomb Syria, if Assad used chemical weapons”. That is, he hinted that Trump, in his opinion, acts in Syria in full accordance with the line of the previous administration. This explanation was criticized again by both the left and the right wings of the American political spectrum. But while the American “Left” (mostly representatives of the Democratic Party) object to the very fact of the USA's direct military intervention in the Syrian crisis, representatives of the right-wing circles do not agree to the very essence of Kerry's declaration.

Doubts on the part of commentators who spoke on behalf of these circles, that Obama in the current situation would have done the same thing that Trump is doing today, are based on the fact that the former President of the United States, in fact, “closed his eyes” to the incomplete fulfillment of the terms of the agreement on the Syrian chemical warfare agents (CWA). In their opinion, plenty of such weapons remained in the Assad regime's hands, and after the announced by Kerry in 2014 completion of their removal from the Syrian army's warehouses, these munitions, although on a limited scale, continued to be used sporadically for the next three years. But from the point of view of the “right-wing” critics of Obama's strategy in Syria, it is not this fact that matters.

They believe that this line of the White House “made the international community, for the first time since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, to come to terms with the fact that B. Assad's regime would remain a long-term subject of the process and a partner in the negotiations. It also made the “moderate” Sunni regimes of the region, still believing that “Assad must leave” — for the lack of some other effective opposition to the regime, intensify the support to armed Islamists. And, finally, it provoked Russia's direct military intervention in the conflict, the leaders of which considered it right to fill the geostrategic vacuum that had developed.

Therefore, if we accept the logic of the arguments of the commentators “from the right”, Trump today is forced to act within the framework of not so much “positively accepted”, as of the imposed on him military-political and diplomatic reality. But then, there are many disagreements in the right wing camp over Trump's policy in this situation. As an example, let us cite a discussion of two very prominent experts in these circles: Daniel Pipes and Gregg Roman, respectively, the President and Director General of the NGO “The Middle East Forum” (MEF), authoritative Philadelphia think-tank of the conservative (and, respectively, pro-Israel and anti-Islamist) orientation.

Daniel Pipes, who also heads the founded by him NGO “Campus Watch” (engaged in the struggle against prejudiced presenting of the Arab-Israeli conflict and radical anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic propaganda in the universities of the Western world, as well as in exposing the ties of academic Oriental centers with funds that also sponsor radical Islamist, including terrorist organizations) called the US Navy's attack on the Syrian base the White House's “wrong step”. His arguments were presented in the article published in the Internet version of the National Review, which has a reputation as an authoritative ideological platform of the conservative camp and the “voice of the American right”.

In that text, Pipes, as he did in the past, warned the administration against direct military intervention in the civil war that has been going on for 6 years, supported by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, a diverse, as he put it, set of Arab Sunni insurgents of an Islamist kind, with the patronized by Iran more united pro-government bloc of Shiites, Alawites, and part of Christians. Since the dominance of both the heinous regime of Assad and the Islamist Sunni fanatics is an equally bad decision for Syria, the best, if you follow Pipe's logic, what the Trump administration can do in this situation is to give both the parties an opportunity to sort out their relationship. Without using military force and thus de facto becoming an ally of one of the opposing forces, equally strange to the free world. In a sense, the argument in favor of this understanding is the reaction of the Syrian opposition, which, welcoming the US attack, called for the extension of such steps to all airfields of government troops, and to establishing a “no-fly zone” in order to prevent the opposition forces being bombed by the enemy's air forces.

Even without mentioning that such a project, which could have been implemented by the Obama administration before 2014, becomes unrealistic after the arrival of Russia's Aerospace Forces in Syria, the appeal of the opposition sounds more as a demand to the USA to fulfill its unilaterally taken allied commitments than a request for a favor. Therefore, Pipes and his supporters believe that Washington's resources, instead of disposable military attacks that most likely do not suggest further escalation, and therefore the deterrent effect of which in any case will be limited, should be aimed at providing humanitarian assistance and preventing civilians' suffering.

As a maximum, the United States, according to Pipes, can afford to provide indirect support with weapons and intelligence to the weakest of the parties (which in 2013–2014 was the Pro-Assad's bloc, and today is the opposition to Assad), pending the appearance in Syria of a moderate and sane “third force” with which the West will be able to deal. (It is clear, if this does not contradict the USA's strategic interests and moral principles). Accordingly, concludes Pipes, Obama's refraining from direct intervention in the Syrian civil conflict was the right strategy, the effectiveness of which was at the same time undermined by the senseless, according to the President of the MEF, drawing out some of the “red lines” that the former administration was not going to fulfill anyway.

Gregg Roman presented a fundamentally different vision of the situation. In his article published by the Washington semi-official newspaper The Hill (“[Capitol] Hill”) daily delivered to the offices of almost all congressmen, senators and officials of the US Administration and the White House, and is believed to have a considerable influence on those involved in political decision-making, Roman vigorously supported the strike on Syria. Moreover, for approximately the same reasons that Obama's critics in the current President's environment are guided by — the need to restore the ultimatum deterrence potential that the United States had had before Obama's implementation of his new Middle East strategy. And the loss of which, according to Roman, was manifested in Washington's “toothless” reaction to Assad's demonstrative violation in 2013 and later, of the agreed “red lines” of the regime's actions and its opponents in Syria.

Trump's quick, autonomous and unexpected actions in sharp contrast to the lines of the previous administration, who had been buying time under the pretext of having first to get Congress support, then — the NATO allies' consent, the expert believes, “allowed to wash away the fiasco” of Obama's “red lines”. And thereby “to restore the USA's prestige and reputation of a reliable and predictable ally” — which, according to Roman, is evidenced by the “astonishingly favorable”, as he put it, reaction of both the Western and moderate Arab worlds. And Roman concludes that it is the “bold American leadership and decisive actions”, so long awaited by the US' Middle Eastern allies, that should be preferred to cumbersome and ineffective multilateral constructions, and not well conceptualized diplomatic nicety.


To be continued…