Syria: Russians alarmed, Washington Befuddled, by White House threats

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The unusual statement from the “White House” on Monday saying that there were indications that the Syrian regime was preparing to use poison gas has provoked much head-scratching both inside the Trump administration and around the world. Why would the “White House” say this? Is it preparing the way for another missile strike on a Syrian military target? Why? Who? It is sort of like a sordid murder in a pulp mystery novel. Who had means, motive and opportunity?

It should be said that the Russian pundits can be forgiven for being confused. Trump’s statement apparently came as a huge shock to the Department of Defense and senior officers in the military and also to the State Department.

Although the top, more political levels of the Department of Defense swung into action to support the White House charge, apparently the officers who would have known if the allegation had been true were taken by surprise.

Who at the White House put this meme out? It wasn’t Trump, since he would have tweeted, and he hasn’t said anything about it. Apparently Jared Kushner is in actual charge of foreign policy, so maybe it is he. Kushner is alleged to be behind Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their kerfuffle with Qatar, to the extreme annoyance of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Tillerson has about had it with the White House insiders who keep over-ruling him and frankly humiliating him, and is said to have exploded at them on Friday, with Reince Priebus and Jared Kushner in the room.

Then it was alleged yesterday that the late-Monday White House announcement had already deterred Syria from use of poison gas. . The ghost ended up haunting itself.

As for the Russian press, BBC Monitoring has a round up.

The popular Moskovsky Komsomolets suspects that Trump is gearing up for another missile strike on the al-Assad regime. It says that such interference by the US will just prolong the civil war in Syria. Hitting the regime, the paper says, would show that the US doesn’t actually care about terrorism, but is committed to regime change. Boris Dolgov is quoted with some further speculation. The US, he says, wants to get rid of al-Assad and thus deprive Russia of a key ally in the Middle East. The added bonus for Washington, he alleged, was that once the Syrian regime collapses, radical Muslim fundamentalists will sweep into power in Damascus and then pursue terrorism against Russia in the Caucasus, as among the Chechens.

The centrist Nezavisimaya Gazeta said that Russian experts doubt that Trump is planning another strike on Syria. It worries, though, that Iran may encourage the al-Assad forces to use gas. This action would in turn result in a US strike, which would sour relations between Russia and Trump and so forestall a US-Russia rapprochement. Tehran, it implies, prefers that the superpowers be at odds with one another and is conniving at that outcome.

So there you have it. The whole thing is an American plot to hand Syria to al-Qaeda, expel Russia from the Middle East, and embroil the Russian Federation in massive and debilitating terrorist attacks by Muslim radicals encouraged behind the scenes by the USA. That’s dark.

Or, Trump is being successfully trolled by a Machiavellian Iran conniving to keep tensions high between Washington and Moscow, so that Iran remains a valuable asset to Russia.

Needless to say, none of these allegations is true. The main force backed by the US in Syria at the moment is leftist Kurds, not al-Qaeda in Syria (The “Syrian Conquest Front”). There is no reason to think the US wants radical extremists to take over Syria or wants them to destabilize Russia. Well, the Neocons might want that, but they are to say the least not in power.

Iran has a moral objection to the use of gas and is certainly not encouraging al-Assad in that direction (Iranian troops suffered from Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks in the 1980s). Indeed, the Iranian opposition blames the ruling ayatollahs for their shameful support of the secular, dictatorial Baath regime in Syria, in general, and many Iranians consider it a national humiliation, given the ideals of the 1979 revolution. On the other hand, it is true that Iran is afraid that Trump will steal Putin from them.

So, I conclude that nobody has the slightest idea what is going on here, but a lot of people are afraid it could lead to dire consequences.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

CBS This Morning: “White House warns Syria will “pay a heavy price” for any new chemical attack”

20 Responses

  1. Thanks for clearing the mud from the situation, even though unfortunately what remains is the core confusion and idiot’s bullying at the heart of the Trump maladministration.

    I assume that anything coming out of the Oval Office, and that means Bannon, Miller and Kushner also, is intended to 1) intimidate, 2) mislead, and 3) ultimately pave the way for unilateral right-wing Israeli government’s triumph. The underlying thinking is going to be dangerously – insanely – wrongheaded and counterproductive to even their own goals. But that of course doesn’t prevent it from happening.

    • Thank you, prof, for being alert!!

      Hedges was right regarding Bannon, Strauss, and Howe. I listened to the talk the other night again…with more attention.

      IMO, good idea to start sharing this yotube. “How Donald Trump Will Destroy Capitalism Chris Hedges Explains” link to

  2. The White House announcement was a lame attempt to counter the Seymour Hersh article debunking the putative April gas attack. I’d suggest the WH thought the article would get wider circulation than it did.

    By suppressing the Hersh article the media (and certain academics) have unwittingly done Trump a service.

  3. The key to all this could well lie in the …that the late-Monday White House announcement had already deterred Syria from use of poison gas since Trump’s main purpose seems to be to bolster support among the faithful. All he has to do now you see is conjure a danger, make a threat and, voila, even the demon Assad is cowed. Meanwhile he gains his popularity boost without upsetting any apple carts, adds an element of lustre to US Intel, and saves 60 million smackeroonies. Not bad for an evening’s work.

    • That would be a classic sweet lemon rationalization on their part. Not inconsistent with this gang of positive/magical thinkers. The question now is whether the lesson sunk in well enough to repeat.

  4. and people consider this clown the leader of the free world? right he’s a clown. each night a lot of us in North America wait for Stephen corbet, Trevor Noah, and Seth Myers to do their monologues skewering Trump for all the stupid things he says and does each day. When you think of it this man keeps a min. of 3 comedians/political satirists busy 4 to 5 nights a week and the rest of us in stiches laughing.

    Every day its another stupid comment by Trump and his political allies. Much of it defies logic if not common sense. They’re jokes.

    this evening Stephen Corbett ran a series of announcements by trump saying there were big plans and in a couple of weeks they would be announced. well nothing ever gets announced. His latest pronouncement was regarding health care, there will be a “big surprise” in a couple of weeks. Right just like all the other announcements. The man only knows how to sit at a small desk have people standing around him while he signs pieces of paper which actually don’t have any real meaning in law.

    so if the clown prince of the U.S.A. is now making statements regarding bombs in Syria, he might want to offer proof because not many are going to believe him. He is just deflecting because his health care bill is going no where. If the American generals don’t know about any Syrian bomb, who knows perhaps Trump’s good friend Putin told him or the tooth fairy. Trump in my opinion is an idiot and may be suffering from early onset of dementia. he sure acts like it and his forgetful ness of previous messages, well…………

  5. this is why you dont play around with lying about war. once you start the fog of war gets thick at foggy bottom. cities are leveled and society is traumatized.

    assuming that this is not your goal.

  6. The Russian army has quietly started construction of a new military base in the countryside near Damascus… This will be Moscow’s third base in Syria – the other two have troops, sophisticated weaponry and support systems to bolster the military operation against ISIS – and this new one will help implement the eight-point ‘deconfliction’ program for the border area agreed upon by Russia, the US and Jordan while also working to ensure humanitarian aid reaches besieged villages and towns.

    link to

    • Note that the new base will be ringed by S-300 systems because Russia is rapidly replacing all their S-300 systems with S-400 systems resulting in lots of surplus S-300 systems.

      Having a Russian base near Damascus will complicate USA regime change attempts.

      It is long past time for the USA to just accept Assad and quit trying to play the grand master in a losing game.

      • The Russians already have S-300 and S-400 missiles in place around Syria and this is sufficient to cover much of the country. More of them would be superfluous.

        Then there is the point that the Russians haven’t used the existing missiles to stop egregious US and Israeli attacks against Assad’s forces. That is, the missiles are utterly useless without the political will to employ them.

        Putin’s bluff has been well and truly called.

      • Unless I’m mistaken, S-300’s, especially deployed in #’s, would defend against cruise missiles nicely. As opposed to manned aircraft, it’s become way too easy to choose the cruise option.

        The very existence of those systems serves to make (rational) planners wake up and smell the coffee, or to exercise their impulses elsewhere. Robust burglar alarm systems can always be overcome, but more often they just serve to make thieves seek softer targets.

        Success as a bully means picking targets who cannot effectively defend themselves. Merely being able to defend yourself goes a long way to keeping aggressors away, while weakness invites the idea.

    • Backing up a bit, this sort of endemic confusion goes along way to invite, if not guarantee big, spontaneous mistakes of judgement. And in this neighborhood, with combustable military forces from multiple sides pressed tightly up against each other, its seems inevitable that something very bad will happen.

      Here is a post by Paul Pillar which enumerates the things that are now encouraging war with Iran. link to

      Most of the factors he notes existed before Trump, but have been mushrooming in their potential impact since he came into office. There’s little new in his analysis, but seeing all this stuff summarizes makes an important point. I would add Trump’s befuddlement, and the resulting lack of any offsetting strategic focus, to Pillar’s compellingly long and depressing list.

  7. Representatives of the USG have stated “Assad must go” to many times to count. The US desire for regime change is documented over a span of at least a decade if not further. The various USG connected think tanks have issued many “white papers” setting forth destabilization and partition plans. Trump and his administration insiders are totally obsessed with Iran. The hatred is palpable.

    Given those facts, assuming this move is not some sort of plan to advance regime change is really naive.

    Moreover, if in fact the intel does not support the claim, it is extremely immoral. The opposition, including ISIS, are clearly losing on the ground. Staging an incident to provoke a large US attack on government forces is their only hope for deposing Assad. Saudi Arabia and UAE hate Assad even more than Trump. They are currently engaging in genocide in Yemen. They are clearly capable of staging a false flag operation, and only a complete idiot would think they would not do so for moral reasons. A false claim such as this can only be seen as an invitation to stage a false flag event. Assad is an official US propaganda target. Our “media” would merrily go along while cheering enthusiastically.

    Yes, the Kurds can carve out their own enclave without a false flag attack, and I don’t think they have any real incentive to do so. But would that really satisfy the regime change advocates? I doubt if the Kurds are really interested in holding on to Sunni areas anyway. Does the USG really trust the Kurds not to cut a deal with Assad?

    • After Libya went bad, the US position has been that Assad should go but that the Syrian government should not be overthrown. Under Trump it isn’t even clear that the position is any longer that Assad must go.

      The idea that the US is trying to install al-Qaeda in Damascus is looney toons.

  8. This the WH staff attempt to stop Trump from “testing by tweet” , at the request of Donald’s private counsel.

  9. Was this White House announcement possibly based on some fake news taken from some alt-right website/blog/radio “news” outlet? Donnie Demento does regularly pass along bits of idiocy from these sites. More probable is that Donnie’s dementia has reached the stage where he is experiencing delusions, suspicions and paranoia, common symptoms of this malady. How dangerously irrational will he have to become before Pence and Congress pull the plug on this ridiculous situation? Everyone who is enabling this travesty should be ashamed.

  10. Dr. Cole, I think you are right to knock down all the Russian speculations, but I would suggest one thing that would contribute to the analysis: it seems apparent that it’s no use any more talking about “the United States” in terms of policy. The Russians are making a huge mistake when they try to identify what US policy actually is, because there isn’t one. There are many.

    There are now at least five sources of policy: the White House, State, the Pentagon, the CIA, and the units in the field.

    For example, it seems that the shoot-down of the Syrian aircraft a few weeks ago was not the first four, but was instead a decision by the local American commander in the area, without consultation. It was not “US policy”, but the policy of that commander, that was exercised in that instance.

    It’s currently the policy of the Pentagon to work through the Kurds. But there’s every reason to believe that the CIA is still supplying assistance to Al Nusra.

    And we’ve seen the still unresolved loggerheads between Pentagon and State on one side, and the White House on the other with respect to Qatar.

    There is no “United States” any more with respect to foreign policy. There are competing servants of Trump, because that’s the way he runs his businesses. He puts his employees at each other’s throats, because that’s the way he likes it.

    Not United at all.

  11. Any more dubious Tomahawk missile attacks on Syria by the Trump maladministration will be intended to pump-up the military and Raytheon stock value which the Trump Family owns.

    link to

    His minions wanted a businessman. They are getting what they deserve. A latent homicidal maniac businessman who seeks opportunities to kill for profit.


  12. Well, the Russians got what they paid for. A destabilized America. They should have paid more attention to the history of falling empires and the amount of damage they can cause, even to the countries preparing to supplant them.

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