Stay Out of the Syrian War
By Nayyer Ali MD
Syria has been mired in a terrible civil war now for over six years. Few thought it would go on this long back in 2011, but now few can see a way for it end either on the battlefield or through diplomacy.
The cost to Syria has been immense. Out of a pre-war population of 20 million, 10 million have been turned into refugees, with half having left the country and almost a million getting as far away as Europe and Canada. The death toll is over 400,000, perhaps even over 500,000 by now. The country is divided into regions run by the Assad regime, by various Sunni rebel factions, by the Syrian Kurds mostly along the northern border with Turkey, and with ISIS hold Raqaa and roads stretching to Iraq.
At this point, the war is at a stalemate. Assad’s forces won a big victory by regaining all of Aleppo after several years of fighting recently, but have not been able to capitalize on that with further gains. The Syrian rebels have seized some more territory in the north, mostly farmland and villages, but have not been able to threaten key regime centers. Because much of Syria is empty desert, the population is concentrated in several key regions, most of which are under government control. Damascus has a near feeling of normality about it, and the Assad forces have direct control of over 70% of the remaining Syrian population.
What Assad does not have is manpower to keep boots on the ground and hold territory. His acute manpower shortage almost cost him the war two years ago, until Iran and Hezbollah reinforced him on the ground, and Russia sent a bomber squadron to give Syria more professional air cover for its army. He has to rely on the Alawite religious minority to provide soldiers, a minority he is a part of, as the Sunni Syrians will not fight for his regime.
In this stalemated situation the Assad regime launched a poison gas attack against civilian targets that killed about 80 people. While certain proof is lacking, most observers do believe that Assad was responsibile for the use of gas.
This resulted in a sudden reaction by Trump, with the launch of 59 cruise missiles against the airbase from which the aircraft that did the chemical bombing came from. The Syrians and Russians deny all this and claim it is fake news.
But Trump may in fact have brought on this chemical attack. In the days before the strike his administration made a number of statements that conceded that the US was no longer expecting Assad to leave under any negotiated peace, and that the fate of Assad was up to the Syrians. It was perhaps a signal that was read by Assad as saying the new Trump team did not care about Assad staying in power, so it must be open season to use any weapon he wants.
It turned out that you can’t expect Trump to think today what he thought yesterday. He quickly changed his mind about regime change and ordered the missile strike while eating chocolate cake with the Premier of mainland China.
So what did the strike accomplish? Militarily, it did a little at the operational level. There were Pentagon claims that 20% of Syria’s air force planes were destroyed. Perhaps, but the Russians can replace them. Regardles,s it is the Russians who have been Syria’s real air force for years. Strategically, the strikes achieved nothing. Even if it were to deter Syria from using chemical weapons again, it hardly matters. Chemical weapons are very cumbersome and do very little to help win on the battlefield. They are weapons of fear. But less than a 1,000 Syrians have been killed by chemical weapons, while regular weapons have killed over 400,000. So, why the big deal about a few killed by chemical weapons?
What it did do is drag the US into the Syrian civil war as a combatant for the first time. Up to now the US has used air strikes and Special Forces to assist the Kurdish forces in their fight with IS, but they have not conducted any actions against Assad’s forces. This just changed.
The problem is that Trump does not play chess. He can’t see four moves ahead. Where do we go from here? What if the Assad regime starts pushing the rebels back into a corner with just conventional forces and Russian bombers? Is the US going to do nothing?
But what could the US do? Start a shooting war against the Russians? It is exceptionally risky to get into a shooting war with a country that could annihilate you in 25 minutes.
And now we get word that the Secretary of Defense is drawing up plans to deploy 50,000 US troops into the Euphrates River valley in Syria, which would push out ISIS from Raqaa. This has to be the craziest idea yet from the Trump team. Trump campaigned on how dumb the Iraq war was, and to put 50,000 US troops into the middle of the Syrian political mess would be 10 times worse. Not to mention the Russian soldiers and airpower in Syria at present. If the US is not going to march to Damascus, how long would the American people put up with US Forces getting shot at in Syria by a faceless enemy? It would be Iraq all over again, but made worse by the much deeper fragmentation of the Syrian state, the persistence of the Assad regime itself, and the explicit backing of armed Russian forces.
Trump’s missile strike was not the opening move of a well-thought out Syrian strategy. It was instead an emotional outburst by a President who is in way over his head. He doesn’t know what even he believes, so his policies flip flop like some pancakes at a breakfast grill. The best outcome is that Trump’s attention span gets sucked up by something else entirely, and the US strike never gets repeated and we stay out of the Syrian Civil War. US intervention will only dramatically worsen the situation.