It was just yesterday (almost yesterday) that Drew McCoy warned that the media pivot from “Trump won’t call out Putin by name” to “Trump’s bellicose personal attacks on Putin are going to get us all killed” was coming. Is it happening?
Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean, it really got out of hand fast.
In Trump’s defense, Russia double-dog-dared him to take a shot at their boy in Damascus:
The Russian military said on March 13 that it would respond to any U.S. strike on Syria, targeting any missiles and launchers involved in such an attack. Russia is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally…
“If there is a strike by the Americans, then…the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired,” Zasypkin told Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV, speaking in Arabic. He also said a clash “should be ruled out and therefore we are ready to hold negotiations”.
Russia’s going to start World War III by attacking the U.S. over a potshot we took at one of their clients for using WMD — after Trump just announced his intent to withdraw from Syria within six months? Putin’s alleged strategic genius is way overrated but surely he’s smarter than that. Let Trump save face with a few cruise missiles and then bid him adieu from the theater. Just in case Putin isn’t smarter than that, though, Trump followed up with a bit of conciliation:
Next month, after America and Russia have been turned into radioactive wastelands, the Russiagate true believers will crawl out of the rubble and start chattering that Trump could have fired even more nukes at Moscow than he did, thus further proving collusion.
It’s hard to believe Russia would risk a confrontation with the U.S. over another wrist-slap strike like the one Trump launched last year against a Syrian airfield. But what if POTUS goes … bigger this time? The point is to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, is it not? Well, last year’s attack clearly failed to do that. By definition, the coming strike needs to send a stronger message.
Heavily backed by Russian air support and Iranian ground forces, Syria is in a different league than adversaries in other places where the United States is at war. Unlike the Islamic State in various parts of the Middle East, the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Shabab in Somalia, the Syrian government has extensive air defense and missile systems capable of shooting down foreign planes.
Sending bombers and fighter jets, with American or French pilots, to strike Syrian airfields or other facilities is considered risky because it could deepen the conflict if a pilot was shot down. That is why the Pentagon is looking at the same sort of retaliation used last year when two Navy destroyers unleashed a fusillade of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Al Shayrat airfield that was believed to have been used to launch chemical attacks…
Already, there were indications that Mr. Assad was moving key aircraft to a Russian base near Latakia, a port city on the Mediterranean Sea, and taking pains to secure important weapons systems.
The U.S. reprimand will have to come via an unmanned weapon like missiles, just to make sure that Americans don’t end up captured or dead and suddenly Trump is stuck in Syria needing to save face. Which raises the question: If you’re afraid to take casualties for fear that that’ll commit you to the conflict, should you be participating in the conflict in the first place?
Anyway. It is so, so odd that Trump would publicly taunt Russia about an impending missile strike given how doggedly he criticized Obama for “telegraphing” his military moves years ago. Hypocrisy doesn’t faze POTUS — he used to needle Obama about spending time on the golf course too, and meanwhile he’s on the links every chance he gets. But it’s glaring here. A fun one from 2013:
As odd as that is, it’s even odder that of all the scumbag autocrats in the world with whom he might choose to tangle, he’s chosen Bashar Assad. Towards virtually any other authoritarian regime, he’s ambivalent at best. He respected China’s “strength” in crushing the Tiananmen uprising 30 years ago. He thought U.S. outrage at Saddam for “throwing a little gas” at the Kurds was overblown. He doesn’t understand the western uproar over Putin murdering journalists since the U.S. has done bad things too. He openly admires Duterte’s ruthless killing campaign aimed at drug dealers and addicts in the Philippines. He called to congratulate Erdogan after the dubious referendum that handed him dictatorial power in Turkey. If you’re a strongman asserting your prerogatives, POTUS usually gives you the benefit of the doubt.
You would think Assad would get an extra benefit of the doubt since he’s backed by Russia, with whom Trump wants better relations, and he’s spent the past seven years killing members of ISIS and Al Qaeda along with untold numbers of civilians. That’s part of the reason why Assad has a cheering section on the alt-right, I assume: It’s not just his warm relations with Moscow, it’s the fact that he’s proven that no one kills Muslim terrorists or Muslim “terrorists” with as much gusto as Bashar Assad. On top of all that, Syria’s just the sort of Middle Eastern multiparty clusterfark that Trump (and many other Americans) want to avoid at all costs after the Iraq nightmare. As such, if ever there was a strongman whom you’d guess POTUS would bend over backwards not to antagonize, it’s Assad. Yet here he is, taunting the world’s biggest nuclear power that he’s about to rain death on Damascus’s “killing machine.” It’s so out of character, it’s almost inexplicable. Trump must really, really have a strong taboo against chemical weapons, never mind the fact that Assad has been using chlorine off and on for years. No wonder poor Tucker Carlson seems so perplexed.
Exit question via Lawfare: Is there any defensible argument that our upcoming strike is legal under international law?