The US response to a scenario in which the Syrian regime was “gassing Israelis would result in a situation that he [Bashar Assad] could not even imagine,” and be “virtually regime suicide,” Marine Corps Gen. (ret.) John R. Allen told The Jerusalem Post.
Allen, one of the US’s leading voices on security issues, spoke to the Post last week and on Thursday, and discussed whether recent events made a Syrian chemical weapons strike on Israel more or less likely.
The former general was the Obama administration’s special envoy in fighting ISIS and on finding security solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, US commander in Afghanistan, and is currently a distinguished fellow and chairman of security and strategy at the Brookings Institution.
The circumstances Allen was confronted with were the combination of the Assad regime’s recent use of chemical weapons against Syrian rebels and revelations that it may possess one to three tons of chemical weapons, along with the Trump administration’s military response.
He said straight out that recent events meant there “would be a lesser chance” that Assad would launch such a strike against Israel. “Were Assad to lash out at Israel and the Israeli population with chemical weapons, it would be virtually a suicidal act for his regime. The enormity of the US response would be unprecedented.
“People need to understand that. I don’t think Assad is stupid. I am careful to ascribe irrationality to any leader – most are rational within their own context,” Allen said, predicting that the strength of the US respond to Assad would be manifested “in ways people can’t even begin to contemplate.”
While one debate revolves around Assad, another revolves around what Syria would look like if he ever is forced out while aspects of his Alawite regime endure.
Allen’s hope was that if Assad were ousted, his successor would be “someone who could be acceptable to the Syrian people, US, Russia, but not Iran – that is a pretty complex and complicated lineup.
“I would be loath to sign up to a plan that places another post-Assad leader in Syria...
doing the bidding of the Iranians… that in some form or another will continue the strategic environment which threatens Israel,” he said.
Pressed as to whether it was realistic to try to establish a leader in Damascus who was not connected to Iran, Allen said, “I am not so sure Iran would have all of the influence they think they have” on a post-Assad Syria, especially if there were renewed US-Russia cooperation.
Yet even if there were, theoretically, US-Russian cooperation to force out Assad and break Iran’s control over his successor, with US-Russia relations currently near an all-time low, how could US-Russian cooperation reemerge and be strong enough to transform the situation.
Allen responded, “That is a complex undertaking. There is no clean answer... All states have their core national interests at heart. You try to seek common ground – areas where you can agree. Then you move from the capacity to agree and extend it to areas where you don’t agree.
This is typical in negotiations.
“You are right. We are at a low point... But we’ve seen relations get better and worse before, and it is not necessarily true that because they are bad now, they will be bad forever,” he continued.
Moreover, “No situation like this remains static. After 45 years of working on these issues, I know that agreements can be made, and common ground can be found.”
Assad’s successor “cannot just be another enabler of the Iranian threat to Israel, and that is a key point for me. I will speak publicly about that. And as Americans, we need to not see Syria in isolation from the larger region and not see the region without showing an inherent responsibility to be concerned and committed to the security of Israel,” the former general said.
Regarding the effect on Iran of the Trump administration’s April 6 attack on a Syrian air base, he said, “Nobody really knows what is in the mind of people like the supreme leader and his national security council... I think they are pragmatic actors in many respects."
“Iran pushes in areas where it thinks it can make progress... I have no evidence that they have begun to cheat on the nuclear portion of the JCPOA. And because they are pragmatic actors, if they considered doing that [cheating], I think they would take into account that under this president, force was used by the US not in reaction to an attack on US assets, but in reaction to a strike by Syria on Syrians,” Allen continued.
“This establishes a different threshold for American action. One the world has not seen for some time. This has to factor into the decision making in places like Tehran and Pyongyang.”
One potentially awkward area for Allen is comparing the Obama and Trump administrations.
Allen worked in top positions for Barack Obama and spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention as one of Hillary Clinton’s lead voices on security issues.
Despite agreeing with Obama and Clinton on significantly more issues and having no connection to Donald Trump, Allen, an unusually straight-shooter, is not afraid to give some credit to Trump for the recent Syria attack and to express criticism of Obama for blinking when Syria crossed his famous “redline” on chemical weapons use in 2013, and is already on-record on the comparison.
At the same time, Allen explained it was important to understand the very different contexts in which the presidents were operating.
“President Obama didn’t have to react to this particular case. Obama had a very different environment in 2013.”
He explained that Obama was caught off-guard by then prime minister David Cameron’s inability to deliver British support for military action after Assad crossed the redline. He said that the UK’s failure to endorse striking Syria as well as the opposition in the US Congress were key considerations in the Obama’s unwillingness to act.
The reluctance to strike the Syrian regime in 2013 was further reinforced by the Russian proposal, and willingness to sponsor, the elimination of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile, Allen said. He noted, however, that confidence in the Russian capacity to deliver on this commitment is now seen as misplaced.
Summarizing some lessons from the US’s experiences with Syria from both rounds, he said, “Everyone now sees the US is ready to use military force... Military force without a political objective is a dangerous thing, but being unwilling to use military force as a matter of policy is more dangerous.”
But ever trying to nail down important nuances, Allen added he is waiting to learn if Trump will back his recent Syria strike with a real policy, saying “I haven’t heard of one yet, but there is work being done on developing a more coherent strategy in the region.”