By Harlan Ullman
Since World War II, every war America started without just cause it lost. Vietnam and the second Iraq War are tragic proof of this conclusion. But America also failed when it intervened with military force for similarly flawed reasons. The reasons are obvious. First, America failed to exercise sound strategic thinking and judgment. Second, America lacked sufficient knowledge and understanding of conditions in which force was used.
In other terms, White Houses never answered the fatal “what next?” question. Congresses never demanded answers. And the public was too often disengaged and disinterested to demand accountability.
Last week’s Tomahawk cruise missile strike against the Syrian air base that launched the sarin gas attack risks could follow this pattern of failure in asking what next. On legal and moral grounds, the use of chemical weapons has been banned by international treaty. Syria broke international law. Under the War Powers Act and Article II of the Constitution, it is clear that presidents have the authority to respond with force. However, as with the nonexistent (second set of) PT-boat attacks in the Tonkin Gulf in August 1964 that gave Lyndon Johnson cause to intervene in Vietnam and the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction that provided George W. Bush the rationale for invading Iraq in 2003 and setting the region on fire, the Trump administration would be well advised to answer the what next question now –even though it may be a bit late.
Should Bashar al-Assad and his ruthless regime be replaced with one that seeks justice and the rule of law? Of course! However, to accomplish that task, what states are prepared to raise a land army of perhaps half a million and occupy Syria as long as it takes to pacify and unify a country wracked and ruined by six years of civil war? The tragic and pragmatic answer is no one.
More to the point, did the missile strikes strengthen or weaken America’s hand in dealing with Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies? That this same air base flew strikes the very next day was a clear signal that Damascus was not impressed by the attacks. Whether Syria kills its citizens with barrel bombs and high explosives or poisons them with chemical weapons quite frankly are differences without distinctions even though the use of sarin gas may be deterred by these Tomahawk strikes.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow did not make much positive impact. Indeed both President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin agreed that U.S.-Russian relations were at a nadir. Still, Moscow has the advantage. Moscow sent two small warships and a logistical support force to the Mediterranean to trail the remaining U.S. Aegis destroyer that launched the Tomahawks as a propaganda response. And unless the United States begins an effective strategic communications plan to present irrefutable evidence of sarin gas agents to delegitimize Russia’s claims to the contrary, Moscow can always deny these charges. Further, Putin has always been cleverer than the Unite States in the public relations game. And the combination of Russia, Iran and Syria united in spinning an alternative story will unfortunately be picked up by the media and be advanced by the mightily effective Moscow propaganda machine.
What should America do and what is it likely to do? Why the administration has not launched a persuasive media assault releasing irrefutable evidence of Syrian use of sarin and other chemicals is quite extraordinary. Merely claiming that the intelligence community has “high confidence” in this assessment will be countered by the certainty that Saddam Hussein still possessed weapons of mass destruction in 2003. Even though this is a false comparison, the U.S. failure then will be taken as evidence to be skeptical or even cynical about the veracity of this assessment of Syrian chemical weapons’ use.
Further, as President John Kennedy sent a personal messenger to French President Charles de Gaulle during the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis with irrefutable photographic proof of Soviet weapons being installed in Cuba, Trump must do the same with Putin. Fifty-five years ago, de Gaulle could say that he did not need any evidence because the word of an American president could be trusted. That condition no longer exists.
Then, instead of threatening Russia or accusing it of being incompetent in not knowing of the presence of sarin on a base where it had its units stationed or complicit and supportive of Syria’s violation of international law, a smarter argument is needed. Simply put, Russia is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention outlawing these agents. Russia was also responsible in removing these weapons from Syria and vouching safe in accounting for all of these stocks. Is Russia on the side of international law? Or is it willingly going to support a state that acted in violation of these norms?
The initial response will be that neither Syria nor Russia used or even believed these agents still remained behind. That is why incontrovertible evidence is vital. Russia may never accept this proof. However, over time most of the international community will believe this argument. Seizing the moral high ground becomes essential.
About Syria, no solution exists that is remotely beneficial without Russian cooperation. Indeed, it could be argued that Syria will now raise the ante trying to create even more refugees fleeing the country to put further pressure on neighboring states and on Europe. As no one is volunteering to put significant forces on the ground, an alternative plan is needed. The United States. must rally the Arab Sunni states to commit to fielding a force to seize Raqqa from the Islamic State.
Then, with that commitment, perhaps enough leverage will be created to convince Moscow that the next steps could include no fly and safe zones in Syria. From these inferred options, who knows how much further the anti-Islamic State coalition might go. Putin could realize then that the time to negotiate was far better than upping the ante with more Russian forces. Clearly, no plan is perfect and this one might not work. But it is by far the most sensible way to proceed.
Unfortunately, as the prior three presidential administrations failed to deal with Russia and Syria, the question is whether or not the current Trump team can or will. On that question hangs the future of too many people not only in the region but globally as well.