By Steve Berman
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told ABC News “This Week” that ISIS was our first priority. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley told CNN that “We don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there.” But she also said that defeating ISIS was America’s first priority. Where’s the conflict in that?
Haley said we have multiple priorities. Keeping to “red lines” set by former President Obama is a priority I think most American politicians are on board with. That’s not going to stop atrocities in Syria. But whoever said that we had to build policy goals around red lines? Defeating ISIS is a policy goal. Regime change in Syria would be a policy goal if we chose to pursue that.
Tillerson and Haley indicated that Assad’s fate is not going to be dictated by the United States.
“In that regard, we are hopeful that we can work with Russia and use their influence to achieve areas of stabilization throughout Syria and create the conditions for a political process through Geneva in which we can engage all of the parties on the way forward, and it is through that political process that we believe the Syrian people will lawfully be able to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad,” he added.
Syria has been a thorn in America’s side for seven years. If there were a single country that’s attracted every evildoer within 1,000 miles, that’s the place. ISIS, Al Queda, Hizbollah, Iran, and Bashar Assad’s own brand of crushing despotism all fight there for primacy on a heap of bodies, drawing Russia and America into what could be a proxy war for control.
The Russians support Assad because he has kept Syria as a client state, giving them access to a Mediterranean warm-water port, and cash for modern weapons systems like the S-300 air defense system. If Assad is to go, the Russians are not going to let him go without having someone else in power who will continue his Russia-friendly policies.
Letting Assad stay guarantees years more of bloodshed and atrocities. But Assad isn’t going to leave without offering protection to the million or so Alawites, the minority sect that ruled Syria for 40 years. Decapitating Syria would certainly result in a proxy war for control of the country, with Russia supporting a Baath party or other friendly player.
For ISIS and other radical Sunnis, Alawites are considered heretics. The Baath Party in Syria cemented itself as enemies of Sunni religious leaders 43 years ago.
Then, in the second move, [Hafez al-Assad] arranged for a respected Islamic jurisconsult (not from Syria but from Lebanon, and not a Sunni but a Shia) to issue a finding (Arabic: fatwa) that Alawis were really Shia Muslims rather than heretics. This was not merely an abstract bit of theology: as heretics, Alawis were outlaws who could be legally and meritoriously killed—as we have seen in recent events in Syria.
Syria has really been in a sort of civil war ever since. In 1983, the elder Assad destroyed the city of Hama then rebuilt it, sending the message that life will be good for Syrians who do not oppose him. But now, the younger Assad does not have the luxury of complete control. Without Russian assistance, and freedom of air supremacy, the rebels may have defeated Assad several years ago.
That leaves “regime change” in Syria as a rabbit hole with no end, other than a Vietnam-style war. The Russians share our goal of destroying ISIS, and we have the benefit of NATO cooperation, along with enormous influence and strategic operations in Iraq. Together with the Russians, we can defeat ISIS. That likely means leaving Assad alone until the objective is complete.
It doesn’t mean we have to sit on our hands when Assad crosses red lines, though. Tomahawk missiles are a potent reminder that America can strike whenever and wherever we want. It’s only through our telegraphing our intent and warning Russian troops that Assad forces were able to escape more significant damage. It was the message that’s important, not the attack itself.
The Doolittle raid over Tokyo 75 years ago this month did little damage to Japan, but it sent a message that America was willing to spent an enormous amount to make a statement. America just spent up to $60 million to destroy some Syrian airfield facilities (and no, we couldn’t destroy the runway in a cost-effective manner). The message wasn’t that America is going to conduct a “shock and awe” war against Assad. It was that we are not going to allow chemical weapons to be used without responding.
Our implicit message is the next response might be a bit more personal to Assad.
Contrary to the media’s hot takes, President Trump hasn’t reversed course and policy on Syria. He reacted to a terrible event and acted on his gut where Obama acted cerebrally. In fact, Trump did the right thing. American policy is still to destroy ISIS, and I expect we’ll see our relations with Russia in the skies over Syria patched up soon once they realize we aren’t out for regime change.
The message on the Sunday talk shows wasn’t intended for the American press—it was intended for Vladimir Putin. It was a public acknowledgement of what’s surely being told to him privately. Regime change in Syria may be inevitable, but America isn’t going to call the shots.