Trump intervenes in the Great Mideast Civil War in Syria

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Syrian Civil War has a domestic, a regional and an international dimension. Domestically, it has become a fight between some largely rural Sunni Arabs (though some are urban as in Ghouta), mostly now of a fundamentalist cast, on the one hand; and on the other the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad and those groups that support him (most Allawis and Christians, some secular Sunni Arabs) or are neutral toward him (Kurds, Druze).

Regionally, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Russia have lined up behind the al-Assad regime, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council support the mostly fundamentalist Sunni Arab rebels. It is hard to tell exactly where the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu stands. It appears to be mainly worried about increased capacity coming off the conflict for the Lebanese Hizbullah Shiite militia, and not to care a great deal which force rules Damascus.

It is therefore no surprise that Saudi Arabia and Turkey were among the first governments to praise President Trump’s Tomahawk missile strike on the small Khayrat air force base in Homs province.

In fact, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in an interview on Turkey’s Channel 7 before the missile strikes that he appreciated Trump’s statement that it is impossible to turn a blind eye to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, but that he needs to see actions, not just words. He said that if Trump swung into action, “the Turkish people are ready to fulfill their responsibility.”

Erdogan also said that he spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin after the gas attack, and that Putin questioned whether Bashar al-Assad was really responsible. Erdogan said that if Putin still did not understand the situation after two days, “that pains us.” Russian media has been insisting that the gas was released at Khan Shikhoun when the Syrian Arab Air Force inadvertently struck an al-Qaeda sarin production workshop and released it. But The Guardian’s on-the-scene correspondent looked into the warehouse fingered by Russia and found nothing inside it.

Saudi Arabia likewise expressed its support for Trump’s cruise missile strike.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been more or less defeated in Syria, with their clients among the fundamentalists, such as the Freemen of Syria (Ahrar al-Sham), having been defeated by the Syrian Arab Army, Hizbullah, Iraqi Shiite militias, and Russia air power. They therefore hope that Trump’s Tomahawk strike might change the situation on the ground. If the regime is demoralized and the fundamentalist rebels take heart, Turkey and Saudi Arabia hope, it is possible that al-Assad could yet be overthrown. Both see al-Assad as a puppet of Iran and as responsible for the mass murder of Sunni Arabs in Syria.

In contrast, the countries supporting al-Assad, some of whom hope for good relations with Trump, largely held their tongues. It may be that even they could not defend a sarin gas attack. It may be that they just don’t want to speak out against Trump. Egypt’s President Abdulfattah al-Sisi is likely in this column.

But the likelihood is that Trump’s cruise missile attack was a one-off action rather than the beginning of a full-scale campaign, and that while it may slightly demoralize the Syrian regime, it won’t significantly alter the forces on the field.

As for Iran, it strongly condemned Trump’s attack on the air base, saying that it will aid terrorism in Syria and will make the difficult Syrian situation even more complicated.


Related video:

CBS News: “President Trump Orders U.S. Airstrike on Syria”

29 Responses

  1. Dear Juan, thank you very much for this analysis. I also like the analysis of modern wars according to their local, regional and international dimensions, I have stressed this when I have been privileged to teach young people about the two world wars of the twentieth Century.

    In just the few hours since the news broke, I have also wanted to see this as a “one-time” action, that interpretation would allow us to “swallow” it as a piece of world history, more easily.

    Yet we really have no insight into the likely thinking and future actions of the Trump administration, depending as it does on such un-transparent factors as Donald’s attitude of the moment, the last of his inexperienced, and/or incompetent, and/or fascistic advisors he talked to, the current balance of the palace courtier”s intrigues, and so on. So we really can’t rely on just our optimistic surmises to guess at future outcomes.

  2. The airstrikes in Syria is a welcome development.
    In 2013, the Russian Government offered to disarm the Syrian’s chemical weapons. It appears that they failed in that regard.
    From 2013 to 2017 several chemical weapons has been used against the rebels and civilians. All blamed on rebels !!! . If the victims were Government, Iran or Hezbollah’s troops, one could easily points fingers to the rebels. But no, that was not the case.
    The Syrian government should be held accountable and should be punished accordingly.

    • The disposal of the chemical weapons was done by the implementing organization for the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons(OPCW). This was done at the direction of the UN after a unanimous vote in the UN Security Council.

  3. Comforting to have the spontaneous approval of such paragons of human rights as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. If Trump hoped the attack would serve to turn Syrian supporters of the regime against Assad he probably misjudged by 180 degrees. In a perverse way it could increase the risks to US citizens postulated by the Daesh spokesman on Tuesday by diminishing any semblance of order in favour of free for all. Russia might well respond by upping its provision to Syria of the S-300 defence system. As the dust settles the illegal unilateral nature of the attack will increasingly bother many outsiders, looking as it does so like Iraq all over again. It can’t appeal to Congress to be sidelined in an area in which they should have been involved. It could also serve to ratchet up the relationship between China and Russia when Xi Jinping gets home. Not bad for a day’s work.

  4. But it will deflect attention away from the Russian Investigations hounding Trump, while proving he cares deeply about the “beautiful” Muslim babies he bars from the borders.

  5. Professor:
    You left out the USA government among those supporting the opposition to President Assad– for it is an indisputable fact that the CIA and DoD are both arms of the US Government and both are publicly affirmed to have helped arm the opposition.

  6. Syria is a 3-dimensional chess game being played by about 8 different players. Our “friends” in Syria are “enemies” somewhere else, and the same goes for everyone else in the game. With almost any course of action, the limited predictable outcomes are overwhelmed by the potential unintended consequences which could resonate far beyond the borders of Syria.

    With Trump at the helm, the US is assuming its traditional role as the blundering, drunken cyclops, powerful but clueless, and that usually doesn’t end well. I suspect our 15-year war is now becoming a 30-year war.

  7. An evident distraction from Trump´s domestic failures as president so far. But more to the point, it appears the militarists control Trump even more than they controlled Obama (in contradistinction to the avowedly, if Solomonically, neoconservative Secretary Clinton). Not only is Trump over his head, he has no head to speak of, no mind–mindlessness appears to be his natural state, at least as regards his political ontology (a particularly virulent and pathological form of lived nihilism). The executive branch of U.S. government is, in effect, acephalous, patently and grotesquely so, since with Trump it appears as a luridly living decapitation, a decapitated entity that nevertheless moves, gesticulates, gurgles, even talks, yet can produce no coherent pronouncement or rationalistic thought-action–not the fine tuned puppet that some accused Reagan of being, not even the poorly tuned puppet that many accused Bush fils of being, but a disturbingly, shockingly dry drunk babbler, way past being out of his depth, to the point of being psychosomatically out of control, i.e. to the point of uncontrollable paroxysms passing as acting passing as strategizing passing as principled governing. Extreme neurotic ressentiment is the only thing president Trump expresses with any cogency, consistency, or conviction: he really is that, a very resentful being.

    • The worst thing that can happen is if this strike doesn’t produce serious negative feedback. Then Trump will think that this whole thing is easy and be encouraged to do it again and more, until it leads to disaster. The man truly has no clue but acts on impulse.

  8. So we have just switched sides in this war! We had been growing to accept that the Syrian government was the lesser of two evils. Now we are fighting with ISIS????

    Previously we tried to create a third side by recruiting “moderate” fighters. These guys would fight for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”. After getting 2 or 3 “properly vetted” guys we admitted that was not going to work. When you offer free money and guns you can always get some guys to stand in line with their hands out.

    Next there will be pictures of dead women and children caused by our bombing. We will be the new bad guy supplanting Assad.

    We have no strategy in this war, we have no strategy in the Middle East aside from dropping bombs on the latest bad guys. Time to get out!

    • We’re against the regime and we’re against the rebels. We’re against the Shi’ites and against the Sunnis. We’re against the people who stay in Syria and against the refugees. How can you say we have no strategy?

  9. All the public “analysis” and discussion aside, Trump made his personal point by sending 59 cruise missiles onto Khayrat air force base in Homs where observers on the ground saw “low combat efficiency” from the attack at a unit cost of $750,000-$1,400,000 depending on the BGM-109 TLAM series and block.

    link to (see Technical specifications +)

    This was a very risky and EXPENSIVE expression of grievance made on our behalf, y’all. Considering, it is a full-blown act of war which will have CONSEQUENCES.

    And it is the Trump voters who will bring warfare onto our shores.

    • An air-force base which has a Russian presence. If the chemical weapons are being stored and planes armed in a base which has Russian ground personnel, presumably the Russians must have been aware of and approved of their use? Is Putin really a desperate gambler?

  10. Trump (really, “Javanka”) is attempting a rather awkward “pivot” towards the center. Bannon is functionally banished, though many white/nationalist policies will continue. Trump has to mobilize some mainstream support or he will, sooner or later, be impeached. Shooting dozens of rockets at (evacuated) A-Rab targets evokes the magic of the Star Spangled Banner; just the thing for the flyover states.

  11. It is interesting to note that many of the talking heads on cable “news” supporting this strike on Syria also supported the disastrous acts of aggression against Iraq and Libya. None seemed to have recalled being lied to by the government as in the Tonkin Gulf and other incidents.

  12. “It is hard to tell exactly where the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu stands. It appears to be mainly worried about increased capacity coming off the conflict for the Lebanese Hizbullah Shiite militia, and not to care a great deal which force rules Damascus.”

    Can someone help me understand this statement? It seems almost a platitude to me that the Israeli government considers the Assad regime to be an immense threat. There’s obviously 50 years of hostility between the two countries – not to mention, Israel already acted to thwart the Syrian nuclear weapons program in 2007 (Operation Orchard). Combined with Assad’s alliance with Iran, I can hardly imagine that there’s any country who wants Assad gone *more* than Israel.

    • For Israel Assad is a contained threat, a managed threat. He is a status quo that Israel can live with. Assad would not permit a Hizbullah to operate out of his territory. Assad is acceptable to Israel.

  13. It’s interesting that the US media, and Trump’s supporters among fervent Christian groups, almost never comment on how the “despicable” Syrian government is in fact supported by and protective of Christian Syrians, who normally would be treated as sympathetic figures worthy of our backing, unlike the Muslim fundamentalists the US *is* backing. No one is talking about the fate of the Syrian Christians should Assad really fall — much as the Iraqi Christians were ignored while the US broke Iraq apart and made possible the rise of numerous anti-Christian factions.

  14. After the US–with a lot of help from local, regional, and other forces–causes ISIS to lose more territory and scatter, who is to then rule those areas? The only (lousy) answer, for a portion of that territory, is Assad. Yes, this causes significant problems. But, is there a realistic alternative?
    Build-up to conclusion:
    -Whatever there once was of a “moderate” opposition is now negligible.
    -Assad’s army has been greatly reduced and cannot therefore rule the whole country.
    -An important battle over ISIS’s “capital” Raqqa will lead to ISIS being driven out. This should occur within a year. Who will rule this important area?
    -Idlib, where the gas was used, is largely occupied by Al Qaeda. Who will rule this area once Al Qaeda is “defeated”?
    -Russia and Iran have far greater interests in Syria than the US does. We’ve seen that there is a clear limit to what the US will invest in Syria. (What important interests does the US have in Syria? The US’s primary goal is to “defeat” ISIS.)
    -Eventually Syria will be “federalized”. The Kurds will get a
    portion — Rojava-lite — but not what they are hoping for, for obvious Turkey-related reasons. Assad will probably get most urban and surrounding areas. Some territory will be dominated by Sunni Arab tribes.
    -One day the US will have to address the root cause of most ME conflict: Saudi Arabia. As was posted at this site a few weeks ago: “By the nature of its monarchial dictatorship, Saudi Arabia cannot endorse more participatory politics in the region… This is why, when US forces invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam in 2003, Saudi Arabia played a critical role in funding and organizing Sunni insurgents there, in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to forestall a more representative political order which Iraq’s Shia majority would inevitably dominate. This is also why Riyadh viewed the outbreak of the Arab Awakening in late 2010…as a mortal threat. [Accordingly,] The Saudi response has been: to undermine Sunni movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, prepared to compete for power in elections; to build up violent jihadi groups [which, for example, are causing havoc in Syria].” H/t: link to

  15. I still don’t see how Syria did this if the U.N. certified that all of chemicals were destroyed.

  16. I am still struggling to understand why a chemical weapons attack was made on a village of no strategic importance. What were the military or political objectives?
    Only a few days ago, the White House announced they accepted Assad as the Syrian leader. The tide of battle has been going Assad’s way for the last year or so and Western governments and civilians are tiring in their support of fundamentalist rebels. Trump was widely regarded as impulsive and inconsistent in his actions and as a new President eager to show his mark, had low approval ratings.
    Why then would Assad wave this red flag in front of the world?

    • “I am still struggling to understand why a chemical weapons attack was made on a village of no strategic importance. What were the political or military objectives?”

      The rationale was internal repression through the terror effect. To operate as a deterrent to dissident elements of the Syrian citizenry.

      The Hama massacre of 30,000 by Syrian government military and security forces in the spring of 1982 when Muslim Brotherhood elements began a modest rebellion in that municipality was certainly overkill – but conveyed a message that the Baathists in Damascus would not hesitate to employ massive unrestrained force to counter even limited anti-government activity.

      The Hama massacre is well-known in the Arab world – but relatively few Americans Westerners are aware that it ever occurred.

  17. Maybe I am naive, but to my mind the Syrian people are paying the price for a war about oil and pipelines.
    It is not plausible for Assad to kill his own people with chemical weapons. We are told what a terrible dictator he is, but what has he done? He cooperated with the CIA interrogating prisoners for them. By Arab standards his is a relative tolerant secular regime. His opposition in Syria are mostly fundamentalist Salafists and ISIS terrorists financed by the Sunni Saudi regimes.
    There are people saying that if he does not fight the terrorists he and his supporters will be massacred, much like what happened in Iraq and Libya.
    No side has the moral high ground, we have been lied to justify invading Iraq, there was the Gulf of Ton-kin incident, the secret bombing of Cambodia ending with Pol Pot,and so much more. We will use every weapon we have to get our way, not for Democracy for sure, every thing is on the table including nuclear weapons, and if necessary chemical weapons, after all we spend lots of money to develop them.
    We do go to war for resources, strategical reasons, economics and trade and land not for ideals. Follow the money is still valid.

    • There is almost no oil in Syria. With supertankers and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), hydrocarbons can be moved on supertankers efficiently and safely. So there is no reason to put a pipeline through Syria, and certainly not enough of a reason to go to war for it. Syria is about geopolitics.

  18. Juan, it would be much appreciated if you and your staff could dig further into the oil/gas issue on Syria…

    Note who is on the advisory board for Genie Energy, a company that is doing exploratory drilling in northern Israel: Dick Cheney, Rupert Murdoch, R. James Woolsey!
    link to

    And check out this USGS assessment of undeveloped eastern Mediterranean oil and gas resources:
    link to

    One of the three areas of interest (the Levant Margin Reservoirs Assessment Unit) includes land and ocean area that belong to Syria.

    Afek, a division of Genie Energy Ltd, would like to drill on land contested by Syria. With Al-Assad out of the way and a US/Israel friendly leader installed, wouldn’t it be easier to conduct such drilling?

    Here’s a detailed post about the January 10, 2017 startup of a division (Atid) devoted specifically to drilling for oil and gas in the Golan Heights:
    link to

    Cui bono? Cui bono? Cui bono?!

    • there is no appreciable oil in Syria. Entrepreneurs are always looking for it but the really big fields in accessible places were long ago found. Since oil prospectors need big bucks to just look, there are lots of completely unrealistic prospectuses out there. Syria was doing 400k barrels a day before the war, which isn’t worth mentioning, much less making war over.

  19. “Follow the money”. Oil is still a glut on the market. In this case, follow the cruise missiles, which will be replaced. This is the easiest way, politically, for the Trump administration to get aggregate demand up, and fill up the coffers of its supporters. At the same time, it throws red meat to the base. It is working… This time.

  20. What you say makes sense, but then, why are we involved to bring Assad down? Why do we support the carnage in Syria? It was outside interference that turned Syria into a killing field. Why do we support the Saudi support of ISIS
    in Syria, add Yemen too all after the disaster in Iraq? Why, did our government learn nothing from the Iraq and Afghanistan fiasco, does it not matter to us that nothing but total destruction and untold suffering is all that was accomplished?
    Now the Trump regime wants even more military funding to finance more total destruction and the annihilation of nations while going on TV whining about the death of children they could not care less about. They are waging war to preserve an empire that is rotting away from the inside, our cities like Detroit tell the story.
    The insanity of it all.

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