How should we understand U.S. President Donald Trump’s cruise missile barrage last week against a Syrian airbase? In one sense, it might be a tactical triumph for his administration: cruise missile attacks are popular with the American public as a form of retaliation, and they diverted attention from domestic political wrangling. It demonstrates for the first time the president’s willingness to oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin on a key issue. It also demonstrates presidential “resolve” during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit, and it sends a message to North Korea. Finally, it provides a one-time shot across the bow of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. These are useful gains for Trump, as far as they go.
Yet if this volley marks a new departure in actual American strategy in the Middle East, it moves us into treacherous waters. The Syrian agony poses a straightforward strategic question: which is worse, Assad or the opposition? Choosing between these two brutal sides is unpalatable. But there is a powerful case to be made that the motley grouping that makes up the armed opposition affects nearly all players far more negatively than the continuation of Assad’s ugly regime.
Look at the opposition. It is made up of numerous rival and warring elements, many of whom are radical jihadis. One of the biggest is an offshoot of al Qaeda. The sad reality is that radical jihadis generally fight better than the democratic, pro-West reformers. If Assad, a secular nationalist, is overwhelmed by jihadi forces, we will most likely face a radical jihadi regime in his stead. More moderate secular politicians who might lead the country are divided, weak and unable to come to power except at U.S. gunpoint; they would face continued Sunni jihadi opposition as well Alawite opposition.
And then consider that a jihadi victory over Assad would not necessarily even bring the civil war to an end. Warring jihadi factions would probably promote long-term sectarian cleansing and perpetuate a brutal civil conflict among themselves for years to come. A new jihadi regime might not even seek to eliminate ISIS. It would not be kind to its population. Under almost any circumstances, it would be hostile to the United States. Perhaps more seriously, its byproduct ― a massive refugee outflow ― would continue to shake the very heart of European political stability and invigorate proto-fascist forces there.
Warring jihadi factions would probably promote long-term sectarian cleansing and perpetuate a brutal civil conflict among themselves for years to come.
If we support jihadis against Assad, we will be fighting to the last Syrian. Assad’s backing by Russia, Iran and other Shiite forces in the region will make toppling him very difficult. Do we care about Syrian lives and Syrian cities? A harsh peace under Assad would at least bring the war to an end. We speak eloquently of the tragic victims of the chemical attacks, the details and circumstances of which are still far from clear, but what of the effect of several more years of war? Or are all these Syrians expendable in the interests of our geopolitical ambitions?
Assad, with help from his allies, is now in the process of extending final control over the country. So who benefits from a prolonged and unresolved war? Ask the people on the ground. Many Syrians who hate Assad actually fear a jihadi victory — and anarchy — even more.
But of course the Syrian agony is not even primarily about Syria or its citizens at all. It’s basically another proxy war among more powerful forces. Yemen, which is currently being butchered and starved to death, is another example, in this case involving Saudi Arabia, Iran, the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates. The actual global geopolitical implications of the Yemen conflict are slight — although armchair strategists in Washington predictably spin reasons as to why Yemen is “vital” to U.S. interests.
Harsh peace under Assad would at least bring the war to an end.
Forget Assad. A proxy war is what we are talking about, one fought over Syrian bodies. In reality, Washington’s real objectives focus on Russia and Iran in the Middle East. The U.S. is rightfully outraged at the use of chemical weapons — but Washington had no trouble with them when they were used extensively against Iran for years by Saddam Hussain in his war against Iran. America’s talk about democracy and human rights essentially provides cover for the strategic military goal of defeating Russia and Iran ― any talk of democracy or human rights is quite absent when it comes to our own strategic ties with Saudi Arabia or Egypt, for example.
Yet how much are Iran and Russia really deadly foes to the U.S. in the Middle East? Washington, Moscow, Tehran and Beijing all share a common goal of eliminating ISIS and curtailing jihadi forces around the globe ― Muslim insurgents directly affect both Russia and China domestically. We all share a desperate need for Middle East stability to let the region cool down from the white heat of almost two decades of catastrophic military conflict and human tragedy. And finally we all share a desire that oil and gas flow to global consumers. These are significant interests. Democracy ranks pretty low alongside combatting the hunger, destruction and anarchy that the U.S. helped create.
And yet Washington essentially still views the world through the zero-sum lens of a sole world superpower. “Full-spectrum dominance” still remains the Pentagon’s official global doctrine. As such, any suggestion of a win-win outcome is a formula that provokes U.S. distaste, suggesting a lowering of our unilateral guard. Note how our mainstream media excoriated U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for repeating that “win-win” formula at a recent press conference with his counterpart from China; the term apparently smacks of an alien or Chinese concept.
The Trump administration, in one of its more rational moments, recently suggested that the U.S. no longer placed top priority on overthrowing Assad, for now. Obama in his last months had also come to recognize the need for softening his position on Assad.
U.S. talk about ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ essentially provides cover for America’s goal of defeating Russia and Iran.
The geopolitical reality of the Middle East today is that the U.S. can no longer unilaterally call the shots. Too many other significant players also have major stakes there that cannot be ignored. There are nine conflicting parties in addition to the U.S.: Russia, Turkey, Iran, Kurds, Syrians, Saudis, Israelis, al Qaeda and ISIS. Russia ― after a 30-year interval following the chaos of the fall of the Soviet Union ― is back on the scene. Russia has been a player in the Middle East for centuries and was long the chief protector of Orthodox Christians. Moscow will not go away. Retaining dominant influence in Syria is a minor strategic advantage compared to the massive regional dominance still enjoyed by Washington in other Middle East states.
Iran has had a close relationship with Syria for nearly 40 years. Its influence in Syria has, if anything, been vastly enhanced by the war against Assad. Once that is over, the military presence of Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias will be greatly reduced.
So what does this cruise missile barrage presage? Is Washington returning to its old and lame game of good jihadi, bad jihadi in Syria, and prioritizing Assad’s fall — and thus prolonging the proxy war?
So far, it appears that Trump’s decision to bomb Syria is little more than a stop-gap measure designed to reduce the many rising pressures surrounding his administration. In military terms, it was a minor act, even if it served tactical purposes at that moment. But if it presages a major strategic shift toward deeper U.S. involvement in Syria, it will be a catastrophe.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official and author of numerous books on the Muslim world. His latest book is “Breaking Faith: A Novel of Espionage and an American’s Crisis of Conscience in Pakistan.”