Owing to the tragicomically punchdrunk condition of newsmedia in the Trump era it remains impossible to determine what, if anything, was achieved by the allied bombing of Syria. There’s a general consensus that 105 missiles were fired at three targets. The White House claims they were chemical weapons complexes, and the Pentagon asserts a direct hit on the ‘heart’ of Syria’s ability to make such weapons – oddly qualified by the admission that Assad still retains a ‘residual capacity’ to use them. No Russians were hit, or Iranians, probably no Syrians and the attack ended largely before defensive Syrian SAM missiles were even launched. The consensus also holds that the enemy had several days of warning during which to withdraw to safe zones, namely anywhere near Russian bases.
Critics argue that the narrowly constrained nature of the attack of very short duration will, in reality, be counterproductive. Assad will return to using chemical weapons. The rebels will further lose heart knowing that. Moscow and Iran will feel emboldened as will other adversaries. Here is one such opinion saying just this and pointing out that “The U.S.-led strike did not hit a single airplane, airfield or delivery system, and it left Syria with chemical weapons capabilities. Even at the sites we did hit, the Syrians had plenty of time to move equipment and chemical stockpiles” while also arguing that Assad calculated on a limited response and was proved right.
Operating under such paralyzing constraints meant that the allies kept the balance of power in Syria exactly as it was, perhaps deliberately so, having no intention of getting further involved in shaping the long term outcome. Which may explain why Israel then launched its own strikes in Syria very soon after the allied one ended, possibly out of frustration, chiefly on Iranian targets. In my previous column, I predicted precisely this – Israel would take care of its own anti-Iran objectives virtually as part of the allied campaign. I imagined that, if the overall campaign intended to achieve anything more than make the rubble bounce in hastily abandoned strongholds, the allies would attempt to void some of Iran’s gains – while avoiding war with Moscow in the Levant. Since Assad’s folks had already disappeared under Russian skirts, the remaining targets of opportunity would be Iranian.
Mr.Trump has, after all, bared his teeth frequently at Tehran. But no, the campaign didn’t last long enough to help Israeli-Saudi strategic goals. So Israel had to go it alone. And there’s the rub. This is where it gets interesting. Because sooner rather than later Israel and Iran must have a region-wide reckoning. Here is a thoroughly well-informed essay by Charles Lister, a supreme authority on Syria, who argues precisely that. To quote the pivotal paragraph:
The days of “rolling back” Iran in Syria are arguably long gone, but containment and deterrence may be all that is left to prevent what could be a debilitating Israeli-Iranian conflict fought on multiple fronts, sucking in multiple adversaries and resulting in a further destabilization of the region. This is not a challenge that can continue to be kicked further down the road and the Trump administration must urgently include it within its strategic thinking on the Syrian issue.
Lister is not revealing any secrets – it’s there on the ground for all to see, not least for the President of the US. The article credibly itemizes the widening chemical weapons threat directed toward Israel, the Kuds Force elements fanning out near its border, the 150,000 Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon and the like. Lister goes on to say that the Jewish state has multiply lobbied both Washington and Moscow against Iranian encroachment but to no effect. As a result, during their raids into Syria Israeli bombers and missiles struck bases where Russians were known to operate. In effect, they dared to do what the US wouldn’t. Which leaves us with the question: why not? Fear of WWIII? That didn’t stop the Israelis.
Both Presidents Obama and Trump got spooked by something at the last moment. Pro-Israel critics of the former’s passivity should take no comfort in the bellicose noises of the latter. So far it’s only noise, and no wonder, considering Donald Trump’s Russia-friendly actions elsewhere. Let’s pause a moment. During the pre-attack media blitz we were told that the President wanted a broader, fuller campaign but was restrained by General Mattis… according to leaks from White House insiders. Hard to believe. This is the same President who, just two days ago, unilaterally refused to sign the latest Russia sanctions. Yet the White House leaked that he was apparently willing to bomb targets under Russian protection in Syria but for Mattis’s intercession. It sounds implausible. It does so because everyone knows that Moscow, Tehran and Damascus form a united bloc in the region. You can’t bomb one without bombing the other. Some might argue, irreverently, that the President genuinely doesn’t know. That seems unlikely. Bottom line: Israel knew and went ahead anyway. While the US and allies largely held back. Why so? Was there a deal with Moscow?
Whatever the background Trump-Mattis tussle, the foreground reality look like this: the current White House is not happy confronting Moscow, not even for Israel’s sake. So it seems. But perhaps something else is afoot. The President’s supporters often detect deeper negotiating ploys amid the contradictions. Soon after the Syria pyrotechnics, North Korea softened its belligerence significantly. Was it a result of the Kremlin nudging Pyonyang, where it still has considerable influence, toward peace? What would Moscow ask from the White House in return? Holding off from the latest anti-Moscow sanctions. And letting the Putin-Assad-Mullahs alliance continue to build power in the Middle East. Possibly. If so, the President’s pro-Israel pals should ask themselves whether the deal was worth it.