By Jonathan Power*
President Donald Trump said it would never happen. Now it is. During the election he said he did not want more interventions – no more Iraqs, no more Afghanistans, Libyas or Syrias.
A year into his presidency the American military is involved in all these places and he’s aching to get boots on the ground in North Korea and perhaps even Iran. At least he’s not thinking about it in Ukraine – that would really set the cat among the pigeons.
Last week his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said that waging war in Syria is “crucial to our national defence”. This is a big deal but few seem to be talking about it. The pundits and congressmen are either asleep at the switch or taking a holiday.
It’s true that Barack Obama initiated this Syrian intervention but he never intended it to be an occupying force but one deployed for one thing only: to drive ISIS out of Syria and then chase it until the US, its local allies and Russia had caught up with it and decimated it – which they have. Obama would have withdrawn his soldiers at this point.
Now the politics of it is different. The mission is to wage war against the present day Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, which is recognized by the UN and the US as occupying the Syrian seat at the UN in New York.
By what authority can Trump do this? Intervention has to be authorised by the UN Security Council – as it was with the first Iraq war and with Afghanistan. There hasn’t been a debate. Neither has there been in the US Congress which is supposed to be at least consulted before the US goes to war.
Public opinion, until this speech by Tillerson, had not been informed of what was afoot. The media had not been briefed. European allies had been informed at the last minute, and they seem quiet about it- perhaps stunned into silence.
The Assad government is back on its feet. Most of the armed opposition has been defeated. The big cities, destroyed down to their bones, are being resettled and gradually rebuilt. What is Trump planning to do with his 2,000 troops? 2,000 doesn’t go very far. It would need 200,000 to overthrow Assad.
So what’s it all about?
Tillerson claims it is to protect Israel. Syria is its enemy. But it hasn’t done anything about it for 35 years. There’s no sign that either side are in much of a hurry to change the status quo. Tillerson added that he was sure “Iran seeks dominance in the Middle East and the destruction of our ally, Israel”. This is piffle. There is no Iranian attempt to destroy Israel. If anything there is the reverse. Israel had plans to bomb Iran’s nuclear plants until the Obama regime successfully negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran. There is certainly no urge inside Iran to take on militarily the marshal-minded Kurds or the super-weaponized, governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt and Kuwait, not to mention the Sunni part of Iran.
This reminds me of the domino theory in Vietnam in the 1960s which led America into a blind war, ending in defeat. The theory was if South Vietnam fell to communism so would the other south east Asian countries as they were toppled one by one. We know that never happened.
Is it to give a moral boost to the Sunni peoples of neighbouring Iraq and Turkey? Turkey with its massive military doesn’t need it and Iraq is ruled by a Shi’ite-sympathetic government, as is Syria.
Is it to side-line Iran which Tillerson in this speech described as “malignant”? Malignant? While Iran has supported Assad it has been opposing ISIS in Iraq as well as Syria, just as at one time it aided the Afghani government against the Taliban and accepted many Afghani refugees. I don’t remember America saying ‘thank you’.
Is it to keep the Russians out? Can that be done with 2,000 soldiers? Anyway the Russians don’t need prompting to leave now Assad is back firmly on his throne. Of course if the Americans hang around trying to stir up trouble against Assad they might leave some of their troops and planes in place. That would be a very counterproductive American move.
The State Department is saying it’s trying to push Syria to attend UN negotiations. At the moment Syria prefers to be a participant in the Russian-led peace negotiations which makes some sense since several years ago the Americans walked out of the UN ones. Moreover, whilst it was still in them it made sure Iran couldn’t attend.
This latest Trumpian move is not going to ensure stability and peace in the Middle East. He should realize his actions are actually undermining the US and provoking instability.
*Note: For 17 years Jonathan Power was a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune – and a member of the Independent Commission on Disarmament, chaired by the prime minister of Sweden, Olof Palme. He is the author of a newly published book, “Ending War Crimes, Chasing the War Criminals” (Nijoff). He also authored “Like Water on Stone – the History of Amnesty International” (Penguin). He forwarded this and his previous Viewpoints for publication in IDN-INPS. Copyright: Jonathan Power.