The US has hit Syria’s Shayrat military air base near Homs with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Whether there is any more to come nobody can say because the strikes do not appear to have much logic to them and so war aims cannot be drawn from political objectives.
But the central weakness flows not from Trump’s knee-jerk response but from the dubious nature of the event that provoked it. A chemical attack by Syria simply does not make sense. Assad has virtually won his war by sheer perseverance, western incompetence and Russian help. At the least, he has no viable opponents on the ground. His strategy is to sit it out while his opponents exhaust themselves, realise the futility of their actions or just leave the country. The West, when it tried at last to put down some sort of marker in a war it could do nothing about, defined the use of chemical weapons as a red line. The Russians agreed and Assad followed through. He gave them up in a quid quo pro negotiated by the Russians. In return, the West abandoned ‘regime change’ in all but words. Both sides kept to the agreement. Why would Assad now use a weapon that could only provoke the West and which is of very limited military use, and one day ahead of a major international meeting on Syria held in Brussels? Former Congressman Ron Paul, a leading, although sometimes critical Trump supporter, argues that the chemical attack is ‘false flag’ operation: “It doesn’t make any sense for Assad under these conditions to all of a sudden use poison gases – I think there’s zero chance he would have done this deliberately”.
Far from showing Trump’s willingness to ‘go to war’ – reversing his supposed ‘isolationism’ which, in any case, was a silly and unrealistic proposition – the bombings instead show the West’s very limited options in Syria. If the West really wants to eliminate Assad, why slam 59 missiles into an isolated airfield? Why not do some real damage, and show ‘global leadership’, by destroying Assad’s military command and control structure?
The plain fact is that while America has the military means to obliterate whatever it likes, both America and the West as a whole has very little power to influence events.
The West would not be able to contain the fall out if Assad were forcibly removed
The US probably has the capacity to ‘take out’ Assad in a surgical strike, or seriously to degrade his already limited military capacity, though his regime is pretty smart and also has Russian assistance. But how would his removal by force affect regional players?
For example, Iran is currently a stabilising force in the region since it wants to rebuild its relationship with the West and wants to show that it can be a trusted, competent and effective regional manager. A significant section of the Iranian elite, and the Shia community in the region, do not believe this can be pulled off and that such a strategy will only weaken Iran in the long run since Western imperialism cannot change its nature. How would killing Assad alter this critically-balanced situation? Almost certainly not in the interests of the West. Eliminating Assad by force, and the fall out that comes after it, would significantly alter Iran’s position as a regional manager.
Furthermore, Turkey is currently playing a very dangerous game in pursuit of establishing itself as the main player and arbiter in the region. Its overriding goal had been to join the European Union. But it has abandoned all hope of joining by negotiation. It has realised instead that potential EU entry is not about reason or willingness to be reasonable, but about power. It thinks it has a much better chance of forcing a better long-standing deal with Europe by establishing its status as the region’s key pacifier and manager, which Europe desperately needs. This has led it to meddle in regional politics in hugely irresponsible ways that are often counter to western interests and alarm the West. Indeed, Turkey is now the main obstacle to a settlement in Syria.
It is very likely that Assad’s removal would embolden Turkey to be even more reckless. Turkey would almost certainly want to take a major position in a post-Assad Syria, if not to subjugate Syria under its control, which would immediately snarl up all regional relations. This would reproduce Turkey’s inability to reach a settlement with the Kurds on a much grander scale.
Then there is Russia. The West has been forced to establish an uneasy and very limited ‘partnership’ with Russia, given that it has been unable to handle on its own the mess it has made of the Middle East. This has obliged the West to accept that Russia is a legitimate regional player and to accept its more active military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean – something unthinkable in the Cold War years. Russia plays a peculiar role in the region. Most of the regional players are anti-Russian, but they want Russia to serve as a counterweight to the power of the West. Iran is by no means a Russian ally, but it benefits greatly from Russia’s presence in the region. Assad’s violent removal would not only be a defeat for Russia, it would perturb regional relations.
What replaces the Assad regime?
If the Iraq war and its fall out has shown the West anything, it is that military action alone cannot achieve stability and war has unexpected consequences. As Napoleon once said of the limitations of war, “you can do anything with bayonets except sit on them”. War can be the continuation of politics by other means if there is a plausible political settlement at the end of it. Clausewitz in reverse does not work.
Perhaps all this explains the almost apoplectic Western response to Syria, including that of western liberals and former radicals. It is a response born of their frustration about the absence of a military or political solution they can be in charge of, rather than a willingness to go to war.
Susil Gupta, 7 April 2017