Syrian Showdown: Trump vs. the Generals
With ISIS on the run in Syria, President Trump this week declared that he intends to make good on his promise to bring the troops home.
„I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home,” said the president. We’ve gotten „nothing out of the $7 trillion (spent) in the Middle East in the last 17 years. … So, it’s time.”
Not so fast, Mr. President.
For even as Trump was speaking he was being contradicted by his Centcom commander Gen. Joseph Votel. „A lot of good progress has been made” in Syria, Votel conceded, „but the hard part … is in front of us.”
Moreover, added Votel, when we defeat ISIS, we must stabilize Syria and see to its reconstruction.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had been even more specific:
„It is crucial to our national defense to maintain a military and diplomatic presence in Syria, to help bring an end to that conflict, as they chart a course to achieve a new political future.”
But has not Syria’s „political future” already been charted?
Bashar Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, has won his seven-year civil war. He has retaken the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus. He now controls most of the country that we and the Kurds do not.
According to The Washington Post, Defense Secretary James Mattis is also not on board with Trump and „has repeatedly said … that U.S. troops would be staying in Syria for the foreseeable future to guarantee stability and political resolution to the civil war.”
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who fears a „Shiite corridor” from Tehran to Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, also opposes Trump. „If you take those (U.S.) troops out from east Syria,” the prince told Time, „you will lose that checkpoint … American troops should stay (in Syria) at least for the mid-term, if not the long-term.”
Bibi Netanyahu also wants us to stay in Syria.
Wednesday, Trump acceded to his generals. He agreed to leave our troops in Syria until ISIS is finished. However, as the 2,000 U.S. troops there are not now engaging ISIS — many of our Kurd allies are going back north to defend border towns threatened by Turkey — this could take a while.
Yet a showdown is coming. And, stated starkly, the divide is this:
Trump sees al-Qaida and ISIS as the real enemy and is prepared to pull all U.S. forces out of Syria as soon as the caliphate is eradicated. And if Assad is in power then, backed by Russia and Iran, so be it.
Trump does not see an Assad-ruled Syria, which has existed since the Nixon presidency, as a great threat to the United States. He is unwilling to spill more American blood to overturn the outcome of a war that Syria, Iran and Russia have already won. Nor is he prepared to foot the bill for the reconstruction of Syria, or for any long-term occupation of that quadrant of Syria that we and our allies now hold.
Once ISIS is defeated, Trump wants out of the war and out of Syria.
The Israelis, Saudis and most of our foreign policy elite, however, vehemently disagree. They want the U.S. to hold onto that slice of Syria east of the Euphrates that we now occupy, and to use the leverage of our troops on Syrian soil to effect the removal of President Assad and the expulsion of the Iranians.
The War Party does not concede Syria is lost. It sees the real battle as dead ahead. It is eager to confront and, if need be, fight Syrians, Iranians and Shiite militias should they cross to the east bank of the Euphrates, as they did weeks ago, when U.S. artillery and air power slaughtered them in the hundreds, Russians included.
If U.S. troops do remain in Syria, the probability is high that Trump, like Presidents Bush and Obama before him, will be ensnared indefinitely in the Forever War of the Middle East.
President Erdogan of Turkey, who has seized Afrin from the Syrian Kurds, is threatening to move on Manbij, where Kurdish troops are backed by U.S. troops. If Erdogan does not back away from his threat, NATO allies could start shooting at one another.
As the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria are both uninvited and unwelcome, a triumphant Assad is likely soon to demand that we remove them from his country.
Will we defy President Assad then, with the possibility U.S. planes and troops could be engaging Syrians, Russians, Iranians and Shiite militias, in a country where we have no right to be?
Trump is being denounced as an isolationist. But what gains have we reaped from 17 years of Middle East wars — from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen — to justify all the blood shed and the treasure lost?
And how has our great rival China suffered from not having fought in any of these wars?
Patrick J. Buchanan
April 5, 2018
Has the War Party Hooked Trump?
With his tweet that Bashar Assad, „Animal Assad,” ordered a gas attack on Syrian civilians, and Vladimir Putin was morally complicit in the atrocity, President Donald Trump just painted himself and us into a corner.
„Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria,” tweeted Trump, „President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price… to pay.”
„Big price… to pay,” said the president.
Now, either Trump launches an attack that could drag us deeper into a seven-year civil war from which he promised to extricate us last week, or Trump is mocked as being a man of bluster and bluff.
For Trump Sunday accused Barack Obama of being a weakling for failing to strike Syria after an earlier chemical attack.
„If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand,” Trump tweeted, „the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!”
Trump’s credibility is now on the line and he is being goaded by the war hawks to man up. Sunday, John McCain implied that Trump’s comments about leaving Syria „very soon” actually „emboldened” Assad:
„President Trump last week signaled to the world that the United States would prematurely withdraw from Syria. Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers have heard him, and emboldened by American inaction, Assad has reportedly launched another chemical attack against innocent men, women and children, this time in Douma.”
Pronouncing Assad a „war criminal,” Lindsey Graham said Sunday the entire Syrian air force should be destroyed.
So massive an attack would be an act of war against a nation that has not attacked us and does not threaten us. Hence, Congress, prior to such an attack, should pass a resolution authorizing a U.S. war on Syria.
And, as Congress does, it can debate our objectives in this new war, and how many men, casualties and years will be required to defeat the coalition of Syria, Russia, Hezbollah, Iran, and the allied Shiite militias from the Near East.
On John Bolton’s first day as national security adviser, Trump is being pushed to embrace a policy of Cold War confrontation with Russia and a U.S. war with Syria. Yet candidate Trump campaigned against both.
The War Party that was repudiated in 2016 appears to be back in the saddle. But before he makes good on that threat of a „big price… to pay,” Trump should ask his advisers what comes after the attack on Syria.
Lest we forget, there was a reason Obama did not strike Syria for a previous gas attack. Americans rose up as one and said we do not want another Middle East war.
When John Kerry went to Capitol Hill for authorization, Congress, sensing the national mood, declined to support any such attack.
Trump’s strike, a year ago, with 59 cruise missiles, on the air base that allegedly launched a sarin gas attack, was supported only because Trump was new in office and the strike was not seen as the beginning of a longer and deeper involvement in a war Americans did not want to fight.
Does Trump believe that his political base is more up for a major U.S. war in Syria today than it was then?
The folks who cheered Trump a week ago when he said we were getting out of Syria, will they cheer him if he announces that we are going deeper in?
Before any U.S. attack, Trump should make sure there is more hard evidence that Assad launched this poison gas attack than there is that Russia launched that poison gas attack in Salisbury, England.
One month after that attack, which Prime Minister Theresa May ascribed to Russia and Foreign Minister Boris Johnson laid at the feet of Putin himself, questions have arisen:
If the nerve agent used, Novichok, was of a military variety so deadly it could kill any who came near, why is no one dead from it?
Both the target, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia are recovering.
If the deadly poison was, as reported, put on the doorknob of Skripal’s home, how did he and Yulia manage to go to a restaurant after being contaminated, with neither undergoing a seizure until later on a park bench?
If Russia did it, why are the British scientists at Porton Down now admitting that they have not yet determined the source of the poison?
Why would Putin, with the prestige of hosting the World Cup in June on the line, perpetrate an atrocity that might have killed hundreds and caused nations not only to pull out of the games, but to break diplomatic relations with Russia?
U.S. foreign policy elites claim Putin wanted Trump to win the 2016 election. But if Putin indeed wanted to deal with Trump, why abort all such prospects with a poison gas murder of a has-been KGB agent in Britain, America’s foremost ally?
The sole beneficiaries of the gas attacks in Salisbury and Syria appear to be the War Party.
Patrick J. Buchanan
April 10, 2018
Is Trump Standing Down in Syria?
Wednesday morning, President Trump jolted the nation with a tweet that contained both threat and taunt:
„Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‚smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
Trump was responding to a warning by Russia that she would shoot down U.S. missiles fired at her Syrian allies, and she reserved the right to fire on U.S. warships and bases from which any such missiles were launched.
The „Gas Killing Animal” was Syrian President Bashar Assad.
That afternoon, Defense Secretary James Mattis dialed it down. Had he seen enough evidence to convict Assad of a poison gas attack in Douma, Mattis was asked. His reply: „We are still assessing the intelligence. … We’re still working on this.”
Thursday morning, Trump seemed to walk back his threat: „Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”
Is Trump planning a larger attack and silently gathering allies? Is he signaling that a U.S. attack on Syria may not be coming?
Whichever, the relief at his apparent stand down was palpable.
Yet the interlude should cause some sober second thoughts.
Why risk war with Russia in Syria, when, by our own inaction during this seven-year civil war, we have shown we have no vital interest there? And, surely, we have no interest in Syria so crucial as to justify a war with a nuclear-armed Russia.
Trump allowed his revulsion at the awful pictures of dead children, allegedly gassed, to impel him to threaten military action almost certain to result in more dead children.
Emotions should not be allowed to overrule what the president has thought and expressed many times: While the outcome of Syria’s civil war may mean everything to Assad, and much to Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel, it means comparatively little to a USA 5,000 miles away.
We cannot forever fight other peoples’ wars without ending up on the same ash heap of history as the other world powers before us.
And why not talk directly to our adversaries there?
If Trump can talk to Kim Jong Un, who used an anti-aircraft gun to execute his uncle and had his half-brother murdered in a Malaysian airport with a chemical weapon, why cannot we talk to Bashar Assad?
In 1974, Richard Nixon flew to Damascus to establish ties to Assad’s father, the future „Butcher of Hama.” George H.W. Bush enlisted Hafez al-Assad and 4,000 Syrian troops in his Gulf War to liberate Kuwait.
What are America’s limited interests in Syria in 2018?
Containing al-Qaida, exterminating the ISIS caliphate, and effecting the best deal we can for the Kurds who have been loyal and crucial to our campaign against ISIS. Damascus, Moscow and Tehran are not fighting us on these fronts. For al-Qaida and ISIS are their enemies as well.
As for the political future of Syria, it is not vital to us and not ours to determine. And the efforts of others to have us come fight their wars, while understandable, need to be resisted.
All over this city, and across the Middle East, there are people who wish to conscript U.S. wealth and power to advance their goals and achieve their visions. Having let them succeed so often has diminished us as a superpower from what we were at the end of the Cold War.
This should stop, and the nation knows it.
Among the reasons Democrats nominated Barack Obama and America elected him was that his opponents, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, supported the Iraq War Obama opposed.
Among the reasons the Republican Party nominated Trump and the nation elected him was that he promised to take us out and keep us out of wars like this Syrian civil war.
Is it not ironic that today our War Party, which, almost to a man, loathed Trump and rejected his candidacy, is goading and cheering him on, deeper and deeper into the Syrian quagmire?
Trump is heading into a 60-day period that will go far to determine the fate of his presidency and the future of the Middle East.
If investigators determine that Assad’s forces used poison gas on civilians in Douma, Trump will have to decide whether to repeat the strike he made on Syria, a year ago, and, this time, risk war with Russia.
He will have to decide by May 12 whether the U.S. walks away from the Iran nuclear deal. On May 15 comes the formal move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the 70th anniversary of the birth of Israel and of the Nakba, or „catastrophe,” of the Palestinians, and the culmination of the Friday protests in Gaza that have turned so bloody.
We and Mr. Trump are heading into interesting times.
Patrick J. Buchanan
April 13, 2018