Analysis

U.S. Attack on Syria Gives Instant Gratification but Is Much Ado About Nothing

Concern for mid-June’s soccer World Cup could moderate Putin’s response to the concerted strike by the U.S.-British-French coalition

US President Donald Trump addresses the nation on the situation in Syria April 13, 2018 at the White House in Washington, DC
MANDEL NGAN/AFP

The U.S. attack in Syria overnight Friday, backed by France and Great Britain, is meant to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons while avoiding both civilian casualties and a direct clash with Russia. 

The Western response seems to have been reasonable, proportionate, apt and, according to U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a one-shot deal. It brought instant gratification for those – including many Israelis – who believe that force conquers all. But the situation on the ground is likely to remain unchanged. In Shakespeare’s words, much ado about nothing.

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The scope of the U.S. action is like the definition of the camel as a horse designed by a committee. Its parameters are the result of back-and-forth negotiations between Washington and less gung-ho London, as well as the product of a reportedly intense confrontation inside the U.S. administration between Mattis and President Donald Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser, John Bolton

Bolton reportedly preferred a massive display of force that would produce “shock and awe,” and possibly change the Syrian equation on the ground. Mattis, meanwhile, pressed for an operation that would avoid any danger of confrontation with Russia or one that would require increasing the U.S. presence in Syria at a time when Trump is already pointing toward the “Exit” sign.

Trump, who vacillates between verbal aggressiveness and operational caution, ultimately decided in Mattis’ favor, though he may soon harbor a grudge over his decision. 

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When Trump hears that Damascus and Tehran are belittling the U.S. operation and portraying him as an empty vessel – or worse, when he hears Fox News announcers portray the operation as weak and indecisive, almost a la Obama – he could very well reach the conclusion that Mattis’ time is up. 

The same people – many of them belonging to the so-called “pro-Israel camp” – who whispered in Trump’s ear to dump outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Bolton’s predecessor, H.R. McMaster, may now press Trump to dump Mattis and bring in a Pentagon chief who “thinks like the president.” Whatever that means. 

For the time being, Mattis’ more moderate position has prevailed, with the assistance of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. Though it’s hard to predict unintended consequences of any military operation, Mattis’ objective of conducting a solitary operation with no follow up seems within reach. 

This is the ultimate interest of most of the parties involved, including Russia. Moscow may denounce Trump and the Western powers that supported him, and could even make grave threats about retaliation. However, Putin’s primary goal right now is to consolidate Russia’s hold on Syria and to ensure President Bashar Assad’s continued rule. 

Soccer may also be playing a role in maintaining world peace: Some 60 days before the start of the World Cup in Russia, the last thing Putin wants or needs is a boycott by the popular French and English squads, the absence of which would empty the tournament of credibility and glory.

Iran and Syria may have other interests, but they will follow Putin’s lead. Assad should supposedly be interested in finishing off the last of his rivals in the civil war without interruption – a goal supposedly undermined by his decision to attack the Damascus suburb of Douma with poison gas last weekend

Perhaps Bashar felt obligated to follow in the footsteps of his father, Hafez, who punished political rivals and rebels with what Thomas Friedman later described as “Hama rules” in the bloody massacre of some 20,000 Sunni radicals in the Syrian city of Hama, in February 1982. After the American operation, Assad will be able to brag about his fearsome policies at home as well as his brave challenge to President Trump, from which he seems to be emerging unscathed.

Israel also has conflicting interests in the aftermath of the U.S. action. On the one hand, American aggressiveness enhances Israel’s own deterrence and might help to reverse Trump’s intention of withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, which Israel opposes. On the other hand, Israel has learned in recent days that tensions between the superpowers in Syria hamper its own ability to fight the Iranian presence in Syria and the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. Further deterioration in relations between Washington and Moscow could restrict Israel’s freedom of movement even more, while increasing the danger of direct clashes between Israeli and Russian forces.

Trump, meanwhile, is probably worried far less about the operation in Syria and its aftermath than he is about his own personal predicament. 

A few hours before the Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched at targets in Syria, McClatchy reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has uncovered evidence that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen visited Prague in the summer of 2016, despite his vehement denials. If true, it not only casts both Cohen and Trump as liars, but also could corroborate a central element of the controversial dossier compiled by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele. 

The finding would lend credence to the claim that Cohen served as a go-between for Trump with the Russians. Worse, from Trump’s point of view, it will also increase speculation about the existence of the so-called Golden Shower videotape – which purports to show Trump in a compromising position with three prostitutes in a Moscow hotel in 2013.

In another demonstration that what goes around comes around, the so-called “pee tape” – which was thought to be dead and buried – also starred in former FBI chief James Comey’s publicity blitz in advance of the publication of his book next week, “A Higher Loyalty.” 

Comey says Trump was obsessive about the tape, urging the FBI to find that it did not exist. Together with Cohen’s continued embroilment in Mueller’s web, Comey’s new book portends a hellish week ahead for the president. 

Trump can live with Assad’s taunts, but Mueller’s probe could bring his presidency crashing to the ground – and he knows it.