US-Led Air Strikes on Syria Expose the Absence of a Coherent Strategy

The attack indicates that the US might not be withdrawing from Syria any time soon and that the old Rex Tillerson plan, now without its progenitor, is back on the table.

US President Donald Trump has a great sense of drama, but no sense of history. As his planes returned from bombing Syria on 14 April, he said the strikes had been “perfectly executed”, and added: “Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”

His aides would have squirmed with embarrassment as their leader echoed his predecessor George Bush Jr’s 2003 speech a few weeks after the fall of Baghdad, when he had stood under a banner that said: “Mission Accomplished”. 

These remarks had, in fact, heralded several years of bitter conflict in Iraq, the deaths of a few thousand US soldiers and several hundred thousand Iraqis, a conflict that is today recalled as the US’s worst foreign policy disaster in several decades.

The prospects before Syria may not be very different.

The Western air attack

Of course, US generals have hastened to trumpet victory: the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lt Gen Kenneth McKenzie has described the attacks as “precise, overwhelming and effective”. The US’s garrulous ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, not to outdone by military brass, has warned that the US “is locked and loaded” to handle any future misconduct by the Syrian regime.

US forces, backed by France and the UK, launched attacks on selected targets in Syria in the early hours of 14 April in response to what was described as a chemical weapons attack on civilians in the town of Douma in East Ghouta, a week earlier, that was then under assault by Syrian government forces. Reports of these attacks, backed by gruesome photographs of seriously injured children shown on global media (with the caption “unconfirmed pictures”), said that about 60 people had died and several hundred had been injured.

The Syrian government and Russia vehemently denied that Syria was involved in the attack; they even questioned whether an attack had occurred, suggesting that the entire episode had been fabricated. They called for an impartial investigation; the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that it would commence its investigation very soon.

But, Trump and his allies needed no such verification and threatened quick retaliation. In his first tweet on April 8, Trump said: “Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. … President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price …”.

When Russia warned that it would attack any missiles directed at its assets in Syria, Trump tweeted: “Get ready Russia, because they [US missiles] 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!”

In the event, the US-led attack on Syria, while more robust than the one last April in similar circumstances, lasted about an hour and directed its firepower at fairly limited targets. The principal target was the Scientific Studies and Research Centre at Barzeh and its branch at Maysaf, which are suspected to be facilities for the development of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Other sites attacked were a few military bases and arms depots near Damascus. The air strikes carefully avoided Russian and Iranian facilities.

The chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford said that, following the bombings, the Assad regime had lost “years of research and development data, specialised equipment and expensive chemical weapons precursors, [inflicting] maximum damage without unnecessary risk to innocent civilians”; again, a “strong message” had been given to the regime that its actions were “inexcusable”.

While the Syrian government described the attack as a “war crime”, Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the action as “an act of aggression against a sovereign state that is in the forefront in the fight against terrorism”. He said that the attacks had worsened the “already catastrophic humanitarian situation in Syria”, while the US “panders to terrorists”. Finally, he described the escalation in Syria as “destructive for the entire system of international relations”.

Fabricated event?

Outside the mainstream western media, there are grave doubts about the chemical attack and strong suggestions that the entire episode is a case of “fake news”, deliberately created to justify the assault at a time when the Syrian government was on the verge of a major victory against rebel forces in East Ghouta, just outside Damascus.

On 12 April, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said at a press briefing in Moscow said that Russia had “irrefutable evidence that this [the chemical attack] was another staged event”. He added that it was the work of “the secret services of a certain state” which were leading a Russophobic campaign. Later, the defence ministry spokesman identified Britain as the country concerned, which was encouraging the US to launch the attacks on Syria.

In background briefings, Russian officials have said that the western-funded “humanitarian” group based in Syria, popularly called “White Helmets”, had faked the April 7 chemical attack; all first-hand reports of the attack have come from the White Helmets and have been widely disseminated by them.

The internet is now awash with substantial stories on this subject. After a detailed study of the video footage released by the White Helmets after the chemical attack in Douma, commentators have noted that, while rushing in to help the “victims”, the White Helmet volunteers had themselves neglected to put on gas masks and protective suits. The canister that had allegedly carried the lethal chemicals and had been allegedly dropped on the site by Syrian forces was shown in a pristine condition in one picture, while the bed on which it had fallen was also undamaged.

Again, reports from Russian sources on the ground say that doctors in Douma reported that they had received no patients with signs of chemical poisoning, nor were there any traces of chemical agents in the area where the attack was said to have taken place.

“White Helmets”

Well before the April 7 “attack”, Syrian, Russian and Iranian sources had exposed several attempts to stage chemical attacks during the conflict in East Ghouta. These had included the discovery of toxic agents in workshops in areas liberated by Syrian forces; all three sources had warned from early March onwards that a chemical attack would be staged as a prelude to a US attack.

The White Helmets were formally set up in 2013 with the official name, “Syrian Civil Defence”. While they describe themselves as non-partisan, they are in fact very closely affiliated with Western governments and receive funding from the US, the UK, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Holland, New Zealand and Japan. They have also obtained funding and training from the Holland-based “Mayday Rescue Foundation”, headed by the former British army officer and mercenary, James Le Mesurier. In fact, some reports suggest that the White Helmets were founded in March 2013 by Le Mesurier. He attended the Royal Military Academy, where he graduated at the top of his class, receiving the Queen’s Medal. He later served in the British Army and operated in a variety of theatres, including Kosova.

In public remarks in June 2015, Le Mesurier explained the background to the White Helmets by pointing out that in “fragile” (i.e. destabilised) states, security actors – such as mercenaries or foreign armies – have the lowest level of public trust; however, in contrast, those professions with the highest level of public trust in such situations are firefighters, paramedics, rescue workers and other similar types of first responders. He has clearly shaped the White Helmets in Syria on this basis.

The White Helmets emerged at a time when the opposition fighters were under severe pressure from government forces. They have only worked in rebel-held areas and are seen to be closely linked with the Al Qaeda-affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Nusra. Observers have noted the relatively limited expertise of the White Helmets as paramedics and their more effective military training.  This has led mediaperson Vanessa Beeley, who has studied Le Mesurier and the White Helmets, to conclude that this “confirms that their role has been as military and logistical support for their Nusra Front colleagues”.

Beeley has also noted the expertise of the White Helmets in the area of propaganda, with its personnel being specifically, trained in camerawork and video production in order to produce videos for the media. She points out that “the sheer number of cameras on site at any one of their rescue productions demonstrates that they are well versed in publicity craft”.

This, Beeley says, has facilitated “further proxy military intervention and to incite pseudo-humanitarian outrage from the International community and western public,” while camouflaging the atrocities of the extremist groups. 

The fight for Douma

Scepticism in sections of the Arab media about the chemical attack is based on the fact that Syrian forces were already heading towards complete success in East Ghouta and just did not need a chemical attack to take the area. Syrian forces began the operations to take East Ghouta on February 18, and by early March they had successfully divided the region into different sectors and begun negotiations for the evacuation of the rebels from the areas concerned. By mid-March, 60% of East Ghouta had been taken by government forces and rebels and family members from militia sponsored by Turkey and Qatar had been evacuated to Idlib.

The last area that remained was Douma that was under the control of the Saudi-backed Jaish al Islam (Army of Islam) that included several Salafi groups, including Jabhat Nusra. Russian mediation led to an agreement for the transfer of these fighters to Jarablus. After this, the story becomes murky: on 30 March, Trump suddenly announced that, following the defeat of ISIS, US forces would now be quickly withdrawn from Syria. He added for good measure that, if anyone wanted the troops to stay on, they would have to pay for them; media have calculated that a figure of $4 billion might be involved.

This came as a shock to several of the US’s allies. Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, urged the need for continued US presence in Syria, though he did not say if his country would pay for this service, as sought by the US president. Amidst this uncertainty, there was an internal coup within Jaish al Islam at Douma that included the death or detention of those who had agreed to the evacuation earlier.

Syrian forces now re-started their offensive against Douma, while demonstrations took place in the town, with the people denouncing Jaish leaders and insisting that the evacuation agreement be reinstated so that they could move to safety. Within a few hours of this, the chemical attack occurred, leading to a coordinated global media campaign to discredit the Assad government, obtain western military intervention and possibly ensure continued US presence in Syria.

Syrian forces, meanwhile, continued their offensive, secured the town and arranged the evacuation of thousands of rebels and civilians to Jarablus. This has raised the question: did Assad really need to use chemical weapons when the opposition was deeply divided, the civilian population was on his side, and his forces were moving forward rapidly to take Douma? As a journalist has asked: “Is Bashar al Assad the Stupidest Man on the Planet?

This leads to the next question: in whose interest was it to disseminate the chemical attack story and influence the course of events in Syria?

Run-up to the chemical “attack”

The complicated series of developments that culminated in the air attacks on Syrian forces need to be pieced together to make sense of what led to these latest events and where they are now likely to take the country and the region.

On January 17, then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson set out US policy for Syria, after the demise of ISIS in fairly clear terms. He said that the US would stay on in Syria, maintaining about 2500 troops in different bases in territory under the control of the largely-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). At the same time, the US would arm and train a force of 30,000 Kurdish forces, thus ensuring continued US and Kurdish control over one-third of Syrian territory.

Tillerson’s plan had many advantages for the US: it would enable the US to promote a post-Assad political process and influence Syrian politics to its advantage. By encouraging Kurdish aspirations for independence, it would promote a new geopolitical reality in West Asia that would be beholden to the US for its sustenance over the long term.

The plan would also lead to the eradication of Iranian presence in the country, while blocking the Iranian super-highway from Tehran to the Mediterranean, via Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus, and thus promote Israeli and US interests. Finally, the US military presence would constitute a challenge to the untrammelled influence that Russia enjoys at present in West Asia and reinstate the US as the sole arbiter of the region’s politics and destiny.

Turkey immediately saw a grave threat to its interests in this political and military consolidation of the Syrian Kurds at its border, who are closely affiliated to its own dissident Kurds of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey believed that this US plan would provide both strategic depth and sanctuary to the PKK and constitute a long-term challenge to the Turkish Republic.

Within three days of Tillerson’s remarks, Turkey moved its troops into Syria, captured the Kurdish town of Afrin after a two-month siege, and conveyed to the Americans that it was looking at consolidating a “safe-zone” about 100 km wide at the Syria-Turkey border to monitor Kurdish moves in the region.

Turkey did more: it affirmed its affiliation with the Russia-led Astana peace process in Syria that includes Iran and sought to enhance military ties with Russia by purchasing the S-400 missile system, a violation of NATO norms that require members to acquire only weapons systems that are compatible with those of other members.

A month later, after Tillerson himself had been moved out, his plan experienced a major setback when Trump announced at a public meeting that he would bring US troops home from Syria. This shocked his allies. While the Kurds saw their Rojava (western homeland) collapsing even before it had taken shape, both Jordan and Israel now saw the prospect of Iranian and Hezbollah forces at their border, together with the Iran-led “Shia Highway” taking shape across West Asia.

The Saudis, of course, were deeply concerned that the regional balance of power would now shift irrevocably in favour of Iran and its regional allies, highlighting its own strategic vulnerability vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic and pushing it closer into the Israeli embrace. In fact, sections of the Arab media saw in Trump’s remarks an attempt to blackmail the kingdom into funding continued US presence in Syria: the Egyptian daily, Al Shurouq described the US as a “gun for hire”.

The US-led attack on Syria indicates that the US might not be withdrawing from Syria any time soon and that the old Tillerson plan, now without its progenitor, is back on the table. The hawks in Washington and their regional allies needed this chemical “attack” to get their president to change his mind and get back to the region they have no intention of leaving.

What next?

The attacks on Syria have certainly served certain immediate purposes for the US and its allies, the UK and France.  They have diverted attention from serious domestic problems that all three are experiencing: the enquiry relating to Russian influence in Trump’s election, the diminishing prestige of UK Prime Minister Theresa May due to her inability to handle Brexit-related issues and disenchantment with her leadership within her party, and President Emmanuel Macron’s weak handling of the nation-wide strikes that have crippled his country and raised questions about his leadership.

The attacks have also affirmed the resilience of the Western alliance that had frayed in Trump’s first year, with Trump now able to rally the Europeans to support his initiative. This could have longer-term implications as the US ups the ante against Russia by promulgating more stringent sanctions and challenging Russian interests in Europe and West Asia.

The government of the UK, isolated in Europe, is certainly likely to welcome the revival of the Atlantic alliance, though it remains to be seen to what extent other EU members will go along with the US’s anti-Russia initiatives.

However, as with everything that involves the US president, nothing is predictable and nothing should be taken for granted.

While shaping a strategy for West Asia, the issues that the US needs to address are:

– the future of Bashar al Assad;

– support for Kurdish aspirations or affirmation of ties with Turkey;

– extent of involvement intra-regional disputes, particularly those that involve its allies’ confrontation with Iran;

– extent to which the US will seek to compete with Russia, and

– extent of deployment of US troops to achieve any or all of the above.

But, there is continued lack of clarity about US approaches to all of the above matters. In regard to Syria itself, Trump had said during the bombings: “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents”, thus suggesting a prolonged US military involvement in Syria. At the same time, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis had said that the attack was a “one time shot” to dissuade Assad from “doing this again”, perhaps hinting at his awareness that the chemical “attack” had been fabricated.

In an analysis in the New York Times, Peter Baker has noted that the airstrikes have “essentially left in place the status quo on the ground”, with Assad unchallenged in Syria and neither Iran nor Russia asked so far to pay the “big price” they were threatened with for backing Assad (though Trump has indicated that some new sanctions on Russia are in the offing).

Baker has argued that on Syria Trump is subject to “competing impulses”: one, the compulsive need to demonstrate his “toughness” at international for a and, the other, his deep conviction that the US role in West Asia after 9/11 “has been a waste of blood and treasure”. The latter view makes him most reluctant to engage the US in the region and instead “let the other people take care of it now”, as he said just before the air attacks.

This is reflected in the recent public difference of opinion between Macron and the Trump administration. Macron said in a television interview that he had persuaded Trump “that it was necessary to stay [in Syria] for the long term”. This was promptly contradicted by the White House spokesperson who said: “The US mission has not changed – the president has been clear that he wants US forces to come as quickly as possible. … we expect our regional allies and partners to take greater responsibility both militarily and financially for securing the region.” 

While the US grapples with its demons and dilemmas, West Asia is once again staring at its numerous conflict zones, any one of which could conflagrate and consume the region.

Talmiz Ahmad, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, and is consulting editor, The Wire.