Trump’s strike is more of the same in Syria

By Christopher Phillips, The Washington Post, 7 April 2017<!–

President Trump’s missile strike in Syria appears to be a dramatic escalation in U.S. involvement in Syria’s five-year-old civil war. This military response to President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons is the first time U.S. forces have directly attacked the regime and sharply contrasts with former president Barack Obama’s hesitance to do so in 2013. Indeed, despite his own opposition to a military strike back then, Trump now blames his predecessor’s timidity for Assad’s brutality.While the style and delivery is different, Trump’s strike has much more in common with Obama’s approach to Syria than he thinks. As I argue in my recent book, this is the latest in a long line of piecemeal — and mostly symbolic — American interventions in the conflict that have done more to escalate the war than bring it to a close.

U.S. policy toward Syria since 2011

U.S. policy has been reactive rather than strategic since Syria’s uprising began in 2011. Although many inside the D.C. Beltway lament his lack of action, Obama actually intervened against Assad frequently. He deployed sanctions, called for Assad to step aside, warned him against using chemical weapons and armed rebel forces. But Obama was skeptical that the United States would be able to resolve the conflict.

Obama recognized that the United States needed to retrench from the Middle East. He was instinctively against military-led regime change — a position reinforced by the chaos in post-intervention Libya. Obama remained unconvinced that Syrians rebels — many of whom were Islamist militants — could prevent a similar descent into anarchy post-Assad. For these reasons, he halted several plans to increase U.S. involvement and stepped back from his own proposed missile strike in September 2013, accepting a Russian disarmament deal instead.

Obama’s Syria policy was thus contradictory: His realist instincts urged caution. Yet he frequently succumbed to pressure from domestic critics and foreign allies to be seen to be doing something. Obama’s anti-Assad escalations came in direct response to regime atrocities, rather than as part of a concerted effort to topple him. In summer 2012, Obama rejected a plan to arm the rebels, only to relent in June 2013 when allegations of the use of chemical weapons by Assad surfaced. Did Obama actually think arming rebels at this later stage enhanced their chances, or was it just the next logical escalation to publicly illustrate his displeasure with Assad?

Symbolic actions and unintended consequences

Whatever Obama’s intentions, his piecemeal escalations dramatically affected the Syrian civil war. Past studies of civil wars have shown how support and even the expectation of support from a foreign power encourage violent escalation. This clearly occurred in Syria, with multiple powers — notably Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — joining the United States in shaping the conflict. One such example was Obama calling for Assad to stand down in 2011. Turkey and Qatar took this to mean that U.S. military intervention was forthcoming and encouraged the armed uprising against Assad.

At the same time, Obama’s statement helped reinforce Iran’s and Russia’s loyalty to Assad, seeing him as a line of defense against U.S. aggression. But in reality, Obama and his team thought that Assad was going to fall anyway and called for his departure to be on “the right side of history” rather than as the first step in regime change. Despite Obama’s reluctance about further involvement in the Middle East, Washington’s allies and enemies still believed the president’s hawkish rhetoric and expected action. When it never came, it angered the former and emboldened the latter.

Still no strategy to end Syria’s civil war

Obama used more cautious rhetoric about Syria in his final years in office. Trump may have to learn the same lesson. Despite a few mixed messages from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it seems unlikely that Washington is about to seek to topple Assad, ditching its Syria policy that puts fighting the Islamic State first. There does not seem to be a renewed diplomatic effort to use the threat of future strikes to force Damascus and its allies into peace talks.

The more optimistic analysts suggest that Trump’s main goal for this strike was to preserve the international norm against using chemical weapons and deter such future regime attacks. The more cynical suggest that this was primarily domestic: yet another way to skewer Obama by appearing decisive and strong against Assad. A combination seems most likely, yet both actually reflect a continuation of Obama’s approach to Syria: short-term symbolic reaction to events rather than a concerted strategy to end the war.

Like Obama, Trump will find that such actions are rarely interpreted as merely symbolic. Assad’s opponents will be buoyed by the prospect of a U.S. president finally willing to deploy force against the regime. Turkey has already resurrected its calls for a no-fly zone, while the leader of a prominent Syrian opposition group said he hopes this will be the first strike of many.

U.S. strike raises international expectations

As Trump now implies that chemical weapons usage is the route to U.S. intervention, it would be unsurprising for the opposition and their international allies to highlight further claims, as they did in the months after Obama first declared his “red line.” In contrast, Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, will most likely double down on the regime, as they did when Obama first called for Assad’s departure. Moscow already announced it will be strengthening Syria’s air defenses. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin was informed of the strike beforehand, he may yet counter-escalate against the United States in some form.

The same structural concerns that held back Obama remain for Trump: the dangers of mission creep and quagmire — and the risks of post-Assad anarchy. His strike may have raised expectations without reducing the risks.

Trump styles himself as the anti-Obama. However, if his Syria policy is to be short-term, reactive and primarily symbolic without any clear strategy to ultimately solve the crisis, it will be more a continuation of his predecessor’s actions than the radical departure he claims.

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‘Unknown unknowns’: What Trump means for Syria

By Christopher Phillips for Middle East Eye, 9th November 2016

Former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld once famously remarked that throughout its history, the US has faced “unknown unknowns”: what we know we don’t know. Trying to forecast how his namesake, President-elect Trump, will approach foreign policy in general and the Syria crisis in particular, seems to fall into this category.

While analysts had Hillary Clinton’s record in public office or the countless statements she has made to sketch out what her Syria policy might have looked like, Trump has provided little more than vague populist soundbites.

Trump’s unlikely triumph will dismay those hoping for a more assertive US role in Syria. Clinton had a reputation as a hawk from her days as secretary of state, having favoured arming Syrian rebel groups in 2012, and calling for no-fly-zones to face down President Assad and his ally Russia during her presidential campaign.

Many in the DC foreign policy community had hoped a Clinton victory would usher in greater activism, recently outlined in policy documents that will now be hastily revised or jettisoned. Similarly, the US’s traditional regional allies, notably Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel were also hopeful that Clinton, seen as a friend, would tack Obama’s seemingly detached Middle East policy more in their favour, especially on Syria.

Instead, they must now deal with a man who mentioned Syria little during his presidential campaign, and what he did say caused alarm.

No weapons for rebels

In the second presidential election debate, Trump implied that his priority was fighting the Islamic State (IS) group, not challenging Russia or Assad, stating: “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS.”

While acknowledging the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the besieged rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo, he claimed the city had “basically” fallen already. He also slammed the idea of arming the Syrian rebels saying, “they end up being worse,” and has been hostile towards Syrian refugees.

lsewhere, Trump has spoken admiringly of Putin and disparagingly of Saudi princes and, of course, is famous for his anti-Muslim policies. This, alongside his questioning of multilateral institutions such as NATO and international trade agreements, has led many to fear that he will adopt a more isolationist stance: drawing the US further back from the Middle East and Syria, possibly ceding the field to Moscow.

Reality check

However, some caution is needed. Firstly, Clinton’s possible shift on Syria should not be exaggerated. She would have faced the same structural constraints that deterred Obama from taking a more pronounced role: the reluctance to commit “boots on the ground”, the deterrence of Russia’s forces already in Syria and uncertainty over which, if any, “moderate” rebels could be trusted with further US arms.

Moreover, like Trump and any newly elected president, she would likely have prioritised domestic concerns and been wary of foreign adventures early in her term. There may have been more assertive rhetoric on Syria under President Clinton, but the policy menu would have remained restricted.

Secondly, Trump’s Syria policy remains an unknown. Until he assembles his administration and appoints a secretary of state, Trump’s approach to the Middle East remains unclear. Will his appointees be there to add substance to his isolationist campaign statements or, on taking office, will he moderate somewhat and draw from the pool of established DC foreign policy experts?

Key to this may be how Trump handles the Republican Party. Though he clashed with the GOP in his campaign, the Republicans now control both houses of Congress and so may build bridges with their unlikely champion.

In this scenario, Bush-era officials that advocate a view of the Middle East not unlike Clinton’s may yet find themselves returning to government. Depending on who is appointed, it is possible that Trump’s approach to Syria may not prove the radical departure some fear.

US options limited

But perhaps most importantly, it should be noted that the US is not the only major external player in the Syrian civil war, to the chagrin of some DC think-tankers.

Since the uprising began, the Obama administration has limited its political and armed support for the rebels, and other states have played a more decisive role. Today, the most influential states are Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, while Washington’s anti-Assad allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have proved more influential than the US at times.

Whoever won the presidential election would have struggled to shift this dynamic, requiring political and military capital that arguably no candidate was willing to expend.

Indeed, many commentators suggested that Clinton’s call for a no-fly zone was largely rhetorical, since to implement such a course would have required attacking Russian positions, risking an escalation that Pentagon officials, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had strongly warned against.

Nowhere is the reality of this better seen than in Aleppo today. Irrespective of hysteria surrounding the US election, Moscow is gearing up for an all-out assault on the besieged rebel east. Russia had prepared this attack in an effort to make a decisive breakthrough before a change in administration, whoever was elected. Putin may be happier that the new president is Trump rather than Clinton but is unlikely to deviate from this plan as he still doesn’t know what the government will be like.

The president-elect remains an “unknown unknown” to Putin, the Syrians and other observers of this conflict: unpredictable and inconsistent and, therefore, potentially worrying to all.

Ian Black Reviews ‘The Battle for Syria’

Book Review: Christopher Phillips ‘The Battle for Syria’

By Ian Black, LSE Middle East Centre Blog, 11 October 2016

Syria’s war is far from over but it is already the subject of a large number of books – many about the internal dynamics of the conflict or the headline-grabbing jihadis who dominate perceptions of it. Christopher Phillips’ impressively-researched study of its international dimensions is an important contribution to understanding the bleak story so far. Based on interviews with officials and a mass of secondary sources, it identifies and examines the key external components of the worst crisis of the 21stcentury: the fading of American power, Russian assertiveness, regional rivalries and the role of non-state actors from Hezbollah to ISIS.

Phillips’ principal argument is that the Syrian uprising of 2011 – pitting ordinary people against an unforgiving regime – was transformed into a civil war because outside involvement helped escalate and sustain it – and of course still does. Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown was followed by other actions that made a significant difference: ‘omni-balancing’ Qatar’s early backing for rebel groups despite its own limited capacity; ill-considered US and Western calls for the Syrian president’s departure; Turkish and Saudi sponsorship of anti-Assad forces; and, from the start, Russian and Iranian support for Damascus that raised the stakes and created an asymmetry of strategic commitment that persists to this day.

Inaction mattered too – whether in the lack of adequate assistance for the rebels or Barack Obama’s failure to response to the breaching of his famous ‘red line’ when Assad used chemical weapons in Ghouta in August 2013. Phillips correctly acknowledges the lingering after-effect of the false prospectus of the 2003 Iraq war on the British parliamentary vote against military action but I think underplays the wider paralysing role of that intervention.

It was the misfortune of Syrians that their chapter of the Arab uprisings opened in what the author succinctly characterises as ‘an era of regional uncertainty as the perception of US hegemony was slowly coming undone’. Obama’s reluctance to get involved may well have made sense after the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, but he was unable to manage his allies and, crucially, raised unrealistic expectations amongst Syrians and the Gulf states. Only ISIS, with its transnational agenda, moved him to act.

The landmarks of the crisis are familiar but they are illuminated by some fascinating details: Before 2011 knowledge about Syria was surprisingly limited, so there was insufficient understanding of the differences between its security-obsessed, ‘coup-proofed’ regime and those in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain. In 2009, the US Department of State Syria desk consisted of one official; of 135 Turkish diplomats working on the Arab world, only six spoke Arabic. Francois Hollande’s diplomatic adviser, wedded to the ‘domino theory’ that meant Assad would follow Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi, didn’t want to hear the nuanced reports from the well-informed French ambassador in Damascus. Mistaken analysis drove what Phillips calls the ‘escalator of pressure’. Russia, with better intelligence, understood that Assad was more secure than others predicted (or wanted to believe) and that the appetite for western involvement was limited.

If underestimating Assad’s durability was a key failure, that was compounded by over-stating the capabilities and cohesiveness of the opposition. Sponsorship by rivals who prioritised their own agendas, misleading extrapolations from the Libyan example, inevitable tensions between the external opposition and fighters on the ground, and the exclusion of the Kurds were all highly damaging. Policy towards the armed rebel groups was incoherent: despite vast expenditure, no foreign state was able to gain leverage over them.

International and regional institutions performed little better, Phillips argues. The short-lived Arab League mission to Syria was led by a Sudanese general linked to the genocide in Darfur. UN envoys Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi failed to overcome US and Arab resistance to Iran taking part in the 2012 Geneva conference, thus excluding a key player at a sensitive moment. Staffan de Mistura shuttled between parties who refused to even meet each other in Geneva, where the Syrian government delegation specialised in stonewalling and abuse. It has not been a case of third time lucky for the UN. ‘Everybody had their agenda’, in Brahimi’s words, ‘and the interests of the Syrian people came second, third or not at all’.

This judicious and measured book stands well back from the Twitter-driven ‘war of narratives’ that has distorted too much media reporting on the Syrian conflict. In the heat and controversy of complex and terrible events, it is helpful to pause and look coolly at the big picture. But it is sobering to contemplate the damning evidence of how outside actors helped fan the flames of ‘an internationalised civil war’ without any end in sight.

The US and Russia could help end the Syria conflict

But are they hurting enough?

By Christopher Phillips, in Prospect, 26 August 2016

The shocking images coming from Aleppo in recent weeks are a stark reminder that there still seems no end in sight for Syria’s brutal civil war, now well into its fifth year. Over 500,000 have been killed and five million are refugees. What began as a largely peaceful revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship has now morphed into a brutal, multi-facetted conflict with heavy international involvement. Might international players hold the key to the war’s overdue end?

International interventions in civil wars are nothing new and political scientists have long sought to analyse their impact. Several studies show that while heavy intervention on one side can bring about a swift end to a civil war, “balanced interventions,” when multiple actors intervene on each side, prolong conflict by creating a stalemate. Syria is a clear case of such a balanced intervention. From the beginning of the war Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, have been willing to commit more to helping the regime than its foreign enemies—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the west—have to toppling it. By providing weapons, money, diplomatic support and more recently troops and airpower, Moscow and Tehran have ensured the regime’s medium-term survival. However, they have not solved Assad’s chronic manpower shortage, making it difficult for the regime to reconquer and hold hostile lost territory. Assad’s enemies have given the rebels money and weapons, but this has been hampered by western reluctance about the involvement of radical jihadists in the opposition and by rivalry among Riyadh, Doha and Ankara. While the rebels gained sufficient support to remain in the field in some capacity, they have never received support that matches that given to Assad. Toppling the Syrian dictator by military means is extremely unlikely.

Negotiation rather than military victory has therefore long seemed the most likely way the conflict can end. However, as seen by the failure of peace processes in 2012, 2014 and this year neither the regime nor the rebels seem willing to make significant compromises (primarily on whether Assad can remain as president) and their external backers have proved unwilling or unable to pressure them.

Again, political science offers some explanations for this. In past civil conflicts, belligerents have only seriously negotiated when they feel they will gain more from peace talks than war. This tends to happen when actors have reached a “hurting stalemate”: when continuing the war is more costly than compromise. However, neither of Assad’s key international allies are currently in such a position. Both Iran and Russia have lost personnel since both stepped up their involvement in 2015, but with Russia losing around 20 and Iran 400 men, not enough body bags are arriving home to create significant domestic pressure for them to change their policy on Syria. Nor is either really financially burdened by the campaign: Russia is reportedly spending $4m a day in Syria, but with an annual defence budget of $50bn this is affordable, despite the weak state of Russia’s economy. Likewise, Iran’s anticipated economic opening after the end of western sanctions gives it more money to pour into the campaign. Of the rebels’ key supporters, Saudi Arabia is not hurting either. Again, its economy is struggling with low oil prices, but the financial support sent to the rebels is still easily affordable. Moreover, unlike Syria’s neighbours, Saudi Arabia has not suffered the conflict’s immediate spillover in the form of refugees or radical militants, so has little incentive to shift its approach.

The two key external players that are hurting are the west and Turkey. Unsurprisingly, these are the actors seemingly most willing to change position. Turkey, struggling with over two million Syrian refugees and multiple terror attacks from Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish groups linked to the Syrian war, has recently softened its line. A growing rapprochement with Russia has seen prime minister Binali Yıldırım suggest there is some leeway on Assad’s future, previously a red line for Ankara. Damascus seems open to this new stance, symbolically bombing Turkey’s Kurdish enemies in Hasakeh last week. European leaders, suffering from the migrant crisis and increased IS terrorism have also hinted at a softer line on Assad, with various leaders suggesting the Syrian president may not have to leave immediately, while US Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly in deep discussions with Moscow about a possible settlement. However, even though Turkey and the west are hurting, both have invested heavily in the Syrian opposition and it seems unlikely either is at a point to cut their losses and walk away, which would represent an unacceptable loss in international prestige.

So what might change to make these key international actors hurt more and take negotiations more seriously? The election of a new US president in November may shift Washington’s approach. Some hope that Hillary Clinton, who advocated more action in Syria as Secretary of State and is closer to the anti-Assad Gulf states than Barack Obama is, will adopt a more aggressive stance, such as deploying a no-fly zone over rebel held areas or sending better weaponry. However, to escalate the US presence to the point that Russia and Iran begin “hurting” sufficiently to compromise would require a major commitment of US military resources. It would risk retaliation from Russia in an arena that the US has not historically seen as in its vital interest—an argument regularly made by Barack Obama for his own limited involvement. Moreover, US presidents rarely seek out major conflicts “of choice” early in their first term in office, fearing a quagmire that may damage their reelection prospects. Crucially, outside the DC Beltway, there is little domestic demand for the US to play a more active role in Syria.

Alternatively, should Donald Trump be elected, with his preference for a reduced international role for the US, it is possible he might entertain a deal with Vladimir Putin, perhaps keeping Assad in power and ending US support for the rebels. However, were Trump even to entertain such a potentially humiliating climbdown, there is no guarantee that allowing Assad to “win” would end the war. As discussed, even with Russian and Iranian assistance, Assad lacks the manpower to reconquer all of Syria. Large stretches of territory would remain potentially dangerous “ungoverned spaces” controlled by rebel groups, the Kurds, IS and new groups that may yet emerge. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and possibly Turkey would be unlikely to accept such an outcome and, with their ties to the US already strained, would likely keep backing anti-Assad forces, continuing the war in some form.

Sadly then, it seems unlikely that enough key foreign actors in the Syrian civil war will experience enough hurt to end the conflict any time soon. A change in US president does not seem likely to prompt such a shift. More dramatic but less likely changes seem necessary, such as a major shift in Russian, Iranian or Saudi policy. In their absence, Syria’s brutal civil war looks set to continue.