The United States strongly condemned the Syrian regime for an alleged "barbaric" chemical attack on Saturday that killed dozens of civilians in the town of Douma, the last rebel stronghold in eastern Ghouta, located on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. Loyalists of President Bashar Assad, backed by Russian air power, have waged a fierce two-month offensive to retake the strategic enclave that has been under opposition control for most of the seven-year-long war.
Deadly gas attack reported on Syrian rebel enclave, Damascus denies, April 8, 2018 (Reuters)
"The Assad regime and its backers must be held accountable and any further attacks prevented immediately," a US State Department spokesperson asserted, adding that "Russia, with its unwavering support for the regime, ultimately bears responsibility."
The timing of the incident coincides, perhaps not coincidentally, with US President Donald Trump's publicly stated intention to withdraw American troops from Syria "very soon," a move reportedly opposed by senior members of his administration as well as much of the Washington defense establishment. It also comes on the heels of a tripartite Russian-Iranian-Turkish summit—to which American representatives were not invited—geared towards devising a "roadmap" to end the war in a manner that will secure the long-term ambitions of those parties.
Critics of the prospective pull-out argue that the continued presence of U.S. troops in Syria is necessary to prevent the re-emergence of the Islamic State, which has been decimated by a US-led coalition over the past year; and acts as a bulwark against both Iran's attempts to further entrench itself militarily and growing Russian influence in the Middle East. Moreover, they contend, the departure of American forces, primarily from northern Syria, would give a freer hand to Turkey to continue its assault on Kurdish YPG units, supposed U.S. allies that were instrumental in ousting ISIS from its former de facto headquarters of Raqqa but which Ankara views as an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.
Overall, there is an obvious incongruity between Washington's expressed desire to hold Assad accountable and prevent him from perpetrating additional massacres—as well as to uphold broader US interests in the region, especially as regards the White House's goal of curbing Tehran's expansionism—and President Trump's aim to completely remove American forces from Syria.
Not surprisingly, countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, among others concerned about the Islamic Republic's "nefarious activities" (President Trump's words), have directly conveyed to the US president their disapproval of the emerging policy. On Sunday, Israeli Strategic Affairs and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan went one step further, openly urging Washington to attack Syrian assets
in response to the regime's latest usage of chemical weapons.
"A US military withdrawal from any stormy, volatile, unpredictable area which is vital to regional and global stability would undermine its national security," according to Yoram Ettinger, a former ambassador and minister for Congressional affairs at Israel's Embassy in Washington. "Instead of combating Islamic terrorists in their own trenches, the US might have to confront them at home. It also would entail a substantial pay-off to American adversaries such as Iran, which is increasing its involvement in places like Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Any other party trying to undermine US influence, primarily Russia and China, likewise would be [emboldened]."
Ettinger suggests that President Trump's actions may be motivated by an ideology known as isolationism, previously a prominent school of thought that meshes well with the American leader's focus on the home front which includes the enactment last month of protectionist economic measures. "The wishful thinking of this simplistic worldview was that the US would be best served by concentrating on itself, but it seems to me that anyone with vision should realize today that there is a global village and that not being involved comes with a tremendous cost," he explained to The Media Line.
Although Americans might have little appetite for another long-term military engagement in the Middle East following the experience in Iraq, it is worthwhile noting the manner in which that country completely collapsed in the wake of then-president Barack Obama's decision to withdraw most US soldiers in 2011. The resulting vacuum led to the rise of Islamic State—whose Al-Qaida-linked precursor was essentially neutralized during an American troop surge—and its eventual capture of huge swaths of Iraq including the major cities of Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah.
Notably, Tehran used this instability to gain a military foothold across Iraq through the deployment of Shiite forces ostensibly meant to combat ISIS but which ultimately also were used to suppress any attempts by the Kurds to gain independence. The Islamic Republic simultaneously consolidated its political influence over a fractured Iraqi government, to the detriment of Washington.
"There is an old saying that if you run from the Middle East, the Middle East runs after you," Professor Eytan Gilboa, a senior research associate at Israel's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, quipped in reference to President Trump's objective to extricate the US from Syria. "The problem is that you cannot separate the future of Syria from other crucial problems in the region and there have been some contradictions in Trump's policy, mainly as it relates to Iran. There is no sense in confronting the nuclear deal and [Tehran's] ballistic missile program and then completely ignoring the Iranian attempt to build a permanent presence in Syria."
President Trump has, in the eyes of many, been wildly inconsistent, ranging from the tariffs he recently imposed on aluminum and steel imports (which many countries were subsequently exempted from) to his positions on NAFTA to NATO to the Paris Climate Agreement to building The Wall (between the US and Mexico).
In Syria itself, the American leader last year ordered a major missile attack on a regime army base from where a chemical attack was launched, only to let numerous other such instances pass with impunity. There is even an inherent contradiction between two of President Trump's most common refrains, Prof. Gilboa noted, given that "‘America First’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ do not agree with each other because you cannot be great unless you are involved in foreign affairs and you cannot be engaged if you are isolated."
As such, some analysts believe that the door has not been shut on a potential reversal on Syria. "President Trump said he wants to withdraw but did not give a time frame for this and under what conditions so there is an opening there," Prof. Gilboa concluded. "It also depends on developments on the ground, for if there are further chemical attacks like the one over the weekend then he could change his mind. Really, anything is possible."
Indeed, the American leader belatedly weighed-in on the apparent chemical attack, describing it on Twitter as "SICK!" This, as one of his top security advisers hinted at a possible military response, saying, "I wouldn't take anything off the table."
But in order for the US to maintain its options, it requires that the nation preserve its presence in Syria and in the adjacent Mediterranean Sea. In this respect, unlike in Iraq, where at its peak the US had well over 150,000 soldiers in the country, there are only an estimated 2,000 American "boots on the ground" in Syria. By comparison, there are some 50,000 US military personnel stationed in Japan, 30,000 in Germany, 25,000 in South Korea, and, as regards the Middle East, nearly 10,000 in both Kuwait and Bahrain in addition to 5,000 apiece in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
While it is true that the latter forces are not immediately in harm's way, if the real issue is financial cost as President Trump has implied, then it stands that he could, arguably, find a way to reconcile America First and Make America Great Again by cutting the military budget elsewhere in order to make up for the price of maintaining a necessary force in Syria sufficient to secure vital US national interests, along with those of its increasingly mystified partners.
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