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Nine Takeaways From the U.S. Syria Strike Briefing, and an Inconvenient Truth for Israel

The Trump administration believes that Assad is still far from victory in his country’s civil war

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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A British Tornado pilot in his cockpit before taking off from Cyprus to strike Syria, April 14, 2018
A British Tornado pilot in his cockpit before taking off from Cyprus to strike Syria, April 14, 2018Credit: Cpl L Matthews/AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The weekend attack carried out by the United States, together with France and Great Britain, against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapon program supposedly contradicts U.S. President Donald Trump’s declared intent of ending the American military presence in Syria. A briefing given by senior administration officials on Saturday indicated, however, that the rationale for the Tomahawk attack, as well as its chosen targets, only reinforce the assessment that the U.S. is on its way out. Then French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Sunday night that he had persuaded Trump not to remove U.S. forces.

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One way or another, the briefing provided a comprehensive rationale for the attack that complements Trump’s mercurial and seemingly self-contradictory tweets, which may possibly be just an attempt to cover for them. Its most interesting insights are detailed below:

* While the United States vehemently condemns the murderous brutality of the Assad regime, it freely admits that this is not enough to warrant its military intervention. The same sentiment, in essence, found cynical expression in recent days in social media memes: As far as America is concerned, it goes, Assad can keep on massacring his people, as long as he sticks to using conventional weapons alone.

The officials made clear that it is only Assad’s use of chemical weapons, in “addition” to the Syrian leader’s savagery, that prompted the intervention, not because of some altruistic opposition in principle to chemical weapons of mass destruction but because they constitute “an intolerable threat to the United States and our interests.” For this reason, they repeated to the point of obsession, the attack should only be read as a focused response to the threat posed by Syria’s poisonous gases on the United States - and not as an attempt to depose Assad or to protect Syrian lives.

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* This is the logic that seems to have guided the choice of targets. American missiles did not go after Assad’s stockpiles of chlorine gas, his usual weapon of choice against the rebels, but rather his ability to produce and store the kinds of chemical weapons that truly scare the U.S.: A storage facility for sarin gas near Homs, a chemical-weapons command and control center in the same area, and, the jewel in the crown, a research, development and production facility for all sorts of poisons and nerve agents in Damascus. The U.S. has all but guaranteed it won’t attack Assad’s remaining reserves of chemical weapons - unless he uses them.

* Since the April 7 attack on Douma, analysts have pondered Assad’s motivation for using chemical weapons in the first place. Why risk his supposedly impending victory by challenging the world with chemical weapons of mass destruction? The American officials, at least, aren’t willing to concede Assad’s “strategic” triumph in the first place. The Syrian despot controls only half of Syria’s populated areas, only half of its population and less than half of the pre-war Syrian GDP, they say. The chemical weapons that Assad uses are meant to compensate for the severe shortage of manpower among his forces. He isn’t deploying chemical weapons despite his victory, but to achieve it, the officials said: “They may be winning militarily in some places but they’re winning in those places operationally in part because they use chemical weapons.”

* U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has stated that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons on at least 50 occasions since the first Tomahawk attack ordered by Trump in April last year. The officials claim that throughout this time, Russia has obstructed and Syria has sabotaged U.S. efforts to exert diplomatic and economic pressure to induce Assad to stop. The difference in Douma, they freely admitted, were the photos and witness accounts that documented the attack, which allowed, among other things, an accurate medical assessment of the victims. These photos were supplied, they noted, by the media, nongovernment organizations and ordinary citizens through social media. Vast differences notwithstanding, these are the same kind of groups that Israel regularly torments for reporting on Gaza and the West Bank.

* The case against Assad is convincing almost beyond a reasonable doubt, despite the absence of an unequivocal smoking gun. The pictures, evidence and testimonies from Douma clearly point to a large-scale chemical attack, almost certainly carried out from the air. Assad is the only Syrian force with aircraft, his helicopters were seen hovering over Douma at the time of the attack and their delivery shells are identical to those used by Assad in previous attacks. The officials said they had “reliable information” - a phrase that begs speculation that it was supplied by Israel - “that indicates that Syrian military officials were coordinating what appears to be the use of chlorine on April 7.”

U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. shows a damage assessment image as he briefs the Pentagon in Washington, April 14. 2018.Credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP

* The officials understandably tout the U.S. success in recruiting France and Great Britain to the campaign. They ascribe it, among other things, to Trump’s ability to “develop a very close strategic cooperation relationship” with Macron and “in particular” with British Prime Minister Theresa May. “There’s an increasing level of trust over time,” they asserted, believe it or not. No word, however, on what happened to the U.S. requests of its great Middle Eastern allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, to take part in the raid on Assad.

* Despite their efforts to ascribe the attack exclusively to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the officials made clear that the administration is still wary of the Islamic State and certainly fearful that it or some other radical jihadi group will get its hands on Assad’s chemical arsenal. In what might be the only indication that a final decision on exiting Syria is still to be made, the officials said the U.S. is concerned by the Assad regime attacking Syrians but also that the “geographical space” of Syria will be used to threaten Europe and the world. Despite Trump’s declarations of victory, the officials steer clear of stating that the end of the campaign against ISIS is at hand. On the contrary, they warn that Assad’s brutality and repressive measures create the kind of “core grievances” that radicalized Muslims and created ISIS in the first place. Unlike many of their Israeli counterparts, Trump’s officials apparently do not subscribe to the “terror is terror is terror” paradigm that ignores the root causes of radicalization, such as repression and occupation.

* Iran is only mentioned in passing, and the officials went out of their way to emphasize that the American action was not aimed against Tehran. They cited Trump’s criticism of Iran, but did not emphasize the Islamic republic’s wish to forge a Shi’ite crescent from Tehran to Beirut nor the direct threats to Israel created by Iran’s entrenchment in Syria. The main issue, as the officials present it, is that Iran’s overseas adventures are draining its limited financial resources, at the expense of the Iranian people. The briefing indicates that Washington does not view the Iranian presence as a direct threat to its own security, a position that should worry Israel but might very well change in advance of the impending certification/abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal next month. Russia, on the other hand, is mentioned almost 50 times, both as Assad’s sponsor and enabler and as a spoiler of efforts to deal with Syria’s chemical arsenal by diplomatic means, including the supervising committee established through the much-maligned deal worked out in 2013 between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama that purported to rid Syria of its chemical stockpiles.

* Israel’s name doesn’t come up at all in either the questions or the answers in the briefing: Everyone can reach their own conclusions from the omission. It’s possible that despite its wonderful friendship with Israel, the Trump administration is carrying on the long-held U.S. tradition of studiously ignoring its best Middle East ally during conflicts with an Arab state. At the same time, however, there are also sufficient grounds to suspect a far greater inconvenient truth: That the administration couldn’t care less about the threats and challenges facing Israel in the Syrian arena, certainly not to the extent that these could persuade Trump to keep U.S. troops in the service of what he has often described as a costly, thankless and ultimately futile battle. Perhaps Macron’s French charm has succeeded where Netanyahu’s chumminess failed.

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