Trump's Syria Threat May Save Lives, but Reveals a Gap Between Tactics and Policy

With no coherent strategy on Syria, Trump's taking a risk by accusing Assad of planning a chemical attack

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A handout picture released on June 27, 2017 Syrian President Bashar Assad sitting inside a Sukhoi Su-27 during his visit to the Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, Syria.
A handout picture released on June 27, 2017 Syrian President Bashar Assad sitting inside a Sukhoi Su-27 during his visit to the Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, Syria.Credit: -/AFP

The White House’s announcement that the United States knows about Syria’s preparations for further chemical-weapons attacks and that Syria will “pay a heavy price” if it carries them out is a rare move, though not an unprecedented one.

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Israel took a similar approach between 2000 and 2006 when it obtained intelligence on Hezbollah’s intentions to carry out attacks on the border, mostly in the Har Dov area. In a number of cases, Hezbollah listened to the warnings and froze its plans. In those cases, the relationship between the severity of the planned actions and the chances of preventing them with a warning were balanced against the likelihood of exposing such a valued source.

With its announcement, the White House is risking that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime will discover its source and take action, whether the source is a human agent or information collected through a cyberattack or communications surveillance. We can only hope that the Americans took all this into account before their announcement and that this isn’t a rerun of the leak by U.S. President Donald Trump to the Russians in mid-May. The slip seems to have damaged intelligence-gathering against the Islamic State, and according to a number of reports the source of the information was Israel.

The Trump administration’s decision is praiseworthy: to repeat the threat of a military response to the use of chemical weapons, after U.S. forces fired cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in April in response to a chemical attack. In both cases, Trump was willing to take a more active line against Assad, compared to the empty threats of his predecessor Barack Obama. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, even added to the White House statement a hint of a threat against Assad’s backers Russia and Iran.

U.S. President Donald Trump waves to the press outside the White House, June 26, 2017. Credit: Saul Loeb / AFP

But as far as the new administration’s policies go, there’s still a gap between threats and actions and between tactical acts and strategic policy in the Middle East. True, Trump seems more determined than Obama, but it also seems that part of his interest is simply to take the opposite policy direction of his predecessor; this would demonstrate the differences between them.

In practice, five months after Trump’s inauguration, it seems the Americans are still lacking a coherent policy in the Middle East. Except for the need to look aggressive and the high priority Trump gives to fighting ISIS, it’s not clear exactly what the Americans want to achieve in Syria, or in the entire region.

The threat to Assad comes at the height of dramatic events all over Syria: the tightening siege on the Islamic State’s self-declared capital Raqqa; the battle between Sunni militias backed by the Americans and the Shi’ite militias linked to the Assad regime and Iran over the wide territories abandoned by ISIS;   the incidents between U.S. planes and those of the Assad regime and Iran in eastern Syria; and Assad’s efforts to reclaim large areas in southern Syria near the Jordanian border.

In all these matters, even though it seems Trump has given his commanders on the ground a freer hand (mostly the air force, military advisers and special forces), he has yet to craft a policy, much less goals. Israel too is having a hard time understanding what the Trump administration wants, and Israeli defense officials are debating whether greater American determination against Iran and Russia will block their efforts, or whether this risks a direct confrontation between the superpowers that could also affect Israel.

The problem isn’t only that the U.S. administration hasn’t yet filled a great number of its positions in the State Department and Pentagon responsible for formulating foreign policy. Israel is finding it hard to arrange communication lines to discuss strategic issues with Trump and his staff.

Syrian President Bashar Assad in front of a Sukhoi Su-27 during his visit to the Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, Syria.Credit: -/AFP

Israel hasn’t had a permanent national security adviser for two years since Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaaov Amidror resigned. The coordination through other channels isn’t what it once was either.

American and Israeli interests in Syria are almost identical, but the two countries need to tighten their relations so they can agree on a joint approach on the Syrian situation, which to a certain extent is running into trouble, the head of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, told Haaretz.

Given what’s occurring in other regions in Syria, the events of recent days in the Golan Heights are just a secondary arena, almost marginal. Since the weekend, the battles between the Assad regime and the Sunni rebels, including the Al-Qaida linked Nusra Front, have raised tensions in the Golan and caused a spillover of unintended fire from regime forces into Israeli territory.

The Israeli response was firm, accompanied by clear threats, but Israel sees no reason to increase its involvement in events there or to take steps beyond a few punishment attacks when Syrian mortar shells land in Israeli territory.