This is a pleasant surprise. “Major decisions” about Syria will be made within the next 24-48 hours, he said this afternoon. And maybe not just about Syria.
Does Putin bear responsibility for the suspected chemical attack in Syria?
— The Lead CNN (@TheLeadCNN) April 9, 2018
Why is he open to blaming Putin for Assad’s gas attack in Douma on the say-so of U.S. intelligence when he’s famously resistant to blaming Putin for 2016 campaign meddling on the say-so of U.S. intelligence? One possibility is that the latter bears directly on him whereas the former doesn’t: He’s not going to risk diminishing the legitimacy of his own victory by allowing that the Russians may have given him an unwanted push over the finish line.
Another possibility is that it’s just much easier to draw a straight line between Assad’s WMD use and the Kremlin. Whether Putin okayed the attack, knew about it, etc, is to some extent irrelevant. Russia was the one that brokered a deal between the U.S. and Syria in 2013 to disarm Assad of his chemical weapons. Clearly he hasn’t been disarmed. Whose fault is that? Mattis made that same point this morning:
— CBS News (@CBSNews) April 9, 2018
Putin did have reasons to support the use of gas in Douma, notwithstanding his inevitable denial. From a smart piece by Thanassis Cambanis:
This latest attack in Ghouta, if it holds to the pattern, makes perfect sense in the calculus of Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The successful trio wants first and foremost to subdue the remaining rebels in Syria, with an eye toward the several million people remaining in rebel-held Idlib province. A particularly heinous death for the holdouts in Ghouta, according to this military logic, might discourage the rebels in Idlib from fighting to the bitter end. Equally important, however, is the desire to corral Trump as Syria, Russia, and Iran did his predecessor, Barack Obama…
One result of Trump’s confusing Syria policy is that Assad and his backers can’t quite be sure what America is planning—a pullout or a pushback. Hence another chemical attack, which will test the range of America’s response and, perhaps, will paint Trump into the same corner where Obama’s Syria policy languished.
“No meaningful American response will be forthcoming, no matter how hideous the war crime,” Cambanis laments. Probably true. U.S. airstrikes on select Syrian targets will follow tonight or tomorrow but they’ll do no more to disrupt Assad’s campaign than Trump’s airstrikes last year following a different chemical attack did. Putin is always eager to show off western impotence; a gas attack coming so soon after Trump announced a U.S. withdrawal from Syria leaves POTUS boxed in, wanting to do something meaningful to hit back but not so meaningful that it might require an extended U.S. presence after all.
Eli Lake also expects half-measures and little more:
[L]ike Obama before him, Trump has been careful not to disturb the sinister plans of the Russo-Iranian-Assad coalition trying to consolidate the country that has broken apart since 2011. The humanitarian costs still stagger the mind. It’s not just the horror of the gassings. Ghoutta for example, like Aleppo before it, has also been under siege. This means basic food and medicine have not reached the civilian population. As photos released late last year from Agence France-Presse showed, infants are literally starving to death…
If Trump really ends up following through on his promise to get out of Syria (perhaps as early as October), he will be leaving the people who were liberated from ISIS to be slaughtered and displaced. He will be helping Iran complete its land bridge to the Mediterranean Sea. He will have committed American blood and treasure to advance the strategic aims of America’s enemies.
What would be more than a half-measure? If he’s intent on withdrawing, notes Lake, Trump could follow Bush 41’s example and at least provide a no-fly zone over territory held by U.S. allies in eastern Syria like the one provided for Kurdish areas of Iraq after the first Gulf War. (Is Trump ready for war with Iran if they send Shiite militias eastward into that territory after America withdraws?) Another, more ambitious plan would be to try to lift the siege of Ghouta that’s now in its fifth year by flying in humanitarian supplies, but whether that’s logistically feasible or advisable is above my pay grade. If a U.S. supply aircraft were shot out of the sky, what does Trump do then? He wants out of Syria ASAP. Any confrontational move against Assad, Iran, or especially Russia that’s met with reprisals risks scrambling that plan by creating a dynamic in which the U.S. has to stay put or even build up just to save face. If getting out is Trump’s supreme goal, the only wise play in response to the gas attack is a wrist slap or nothing at all.
Note super-hawk John Bolton over Trump’s left shoulder in the clip above, by the way. Today’s his very first day on the job. Hitting the ground running! Exit question: If POTUS does in fact make Putin “pay a price,” will that quiet any of the “Putin has Trump under his thumb” Russiagate theories? No, right?