The US fired a barrage of 59 cruise missiles at the Shayrat air base, killing at least six, in response to a attack on a rebel-held town that killed dozens of civilians and was widely blamed on the Damascus regime. With the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles against Syria, the US president would seem to have renounced his stated top priority of fighting ISIS, al-Qaeda and their ilk. In one fell swoop, his declared “America-First” isolationism and protectionism are transformed into interventionism. The contradictory statements coming from various administration officials – for instance Mr. Tillerson and Ms. Haley – do not help one understand the path President Trump would tread in the Middle East, or the international arena generally. Must one believe such a radical reorientation is due to the dominance of emotion over analysis? Is Mr. Trump focused on his wish to appear the powerful, legitimate President at home and on the world stage, rather than on reality, where escalation could increase the risk of a military clash with the Russian-Iranian axis which supports the Syrian regime? It seems there is no strategy in the behavior of the administration.
A: If the shift is real, and interventionism has become the basis of a new course, there will be dramatic effects on the world stage. Weakening an effective anti-ISIS, anti-Jihadi regime – even an authoritarian regime accused of atrocities including the recent chemical attack (for which the regime continues to deny responsibility, but which should be investigated) – provides physiological lifeblood to terrorists. In such a case, the consequences could be felt by all humanity. If Syria’s established institutions such as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) cease to exist, in the absence of a centralized authority Syria would become a Jihadistan, overrun by Jihadi groups warring among themselves, deteriorating into yet another inspiration and haven for extremists from around the world, training a steady stream of terrorists for the EU, the US and elsewhere. Al-Qaeda, ISIS or like-minded groups could re-emerge with new names in Iraq and tap into the deep-rooted Jihadism latent in the petro-aristocracies of the Arabian Peninsula and Eurasia, and metastasize like a cancer worldwide.
B: After six years of multi-factional civil war, the Syrian rebels are disunited, without a governing program yet source of perpetual violence and insecurity. The moderate opponents of the Syrian regime carry little weight, and are not influential. All armed rebel groups with any true effectiveness on the ground are in some degree linked to exclusivist Jihadi ideology and seek to suppress any diversity of political views and thought. These armed groups acting as proxies hijacked the initial legitimate protests by Syrians for democratic rights and against the regime’s security apparatus by dragging it toward sectarian civil-proxy war. Those who combat these armed rebel groups, such as the SAA and various minority militias like the Christians, Kurds, Allawites, Shi’ites, Druze and moderate Sunnis, all with a solid patriotic identity and deep historical roots as well as current socio-economic realities, have strong existential motivations; for them, any renunciation of the fight against Jihadis would mean annihilation and genocide.
C: If a new US posture foresees regime change, more weapons for the rebels and more incisive interventionism, it is necessary to think deeply about the day after the regime is changed. Aside from Libya, the examples of Afghanistan and Iraq come to mind, where after more than ten years of war (and an estimated $4 and $6 trillions spent) the US is still bogged down in an apparently endless war in Afghanistan. Besides giving birth to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Isis in Iraq, the ultimate human and material costs of the US intervention in Iraq still have not been determined. Beyond these obvious cautions, one must consider that the outcome of a war is not decided in the sky or with missiles: Boots on the ground are needed, in the end, for any actual “victory”. Turkey and the so-called Arab NATO in the making could provide such troops; but the efficiency of such an Arab NATO is in serious doubt (see the Yemen case) and its troops – in some degree sympathetic with Jihadis – risk actually empowering the Jihadi groups through defections. Meanwhile, the authoritarian, Muslim-Brotherhood oriented Turkey of Mr. Erdogan, having cooperated with the jihadi rebels, will be strongly opposed by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD) aligned with the Turkish PKK, and its armed wing, the Popular Protection Units (YPG), which are supported by the US Airforce and which are effective in combating ISIS.
D: The Syrian power structure is in need of reform and change: General elections under international supervision could be the first step. This would be possible only through negotiation, both internally and globally. EU auspices would support domestic, regional and global actors in continuing negotiations under the aegis of the UN, in both Geneva and Astana, maintaining respect for Syrian sovereignty. Moreover, the tactical alliance between Russia and Iran in support of the Syrian governmental institutions has in fact demonstrated its availability for negotiations.
If the priority is still to degrade and destroy terrorism, that goal cannot be reached without Russia and Iran. It is up to “deal-maker” President Trump to negotiate a deal to that end, his avowed primary objective. Failure to close the deal would give the terrorists renewed inspiration, but quite possibly lead to the solidification of the tactical Russian-Iranian alliance, who might perhaps reach some agreement with China that could overturn the global balance of power to the serious detriment of democracies and democratic movements in the Middle East and Eurasia.