During Washington’s ongoing Trump investigation circus, little attention is being paid to one the president’s most daring and risky foreign policy moves: muscling in on the war in Syria.
This gradual activity, exemplified by the weekend’s downing of a Syrian jet bomber by an American fighter jet, effectively pits U.S. forces against both Russia and Iran, each of which backs the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
The risk is obvious: can Vladimir Putin in Russia and the mullahs in Tehran long tolerate this escalation by the U.S.? They had, after all, virtually sidelined the U.S. from influence in the six-year-old civil war, as well as Russian-sponsored peace talks to keep Assad in power. Russia has now warned it will shoot down any U.S. jet that flies west of the Euphrates River — that is, anything over Syria.
The benefits, if any, are less obvious. Trump, by putting parts of Syria under U.S. air protection, has suddenly become a player in the outcome of the war and a stumbling block to Russian and Iranian efforts to keep Assad afloat.
Reluctantly and with kid gloves, Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama intervened in the civil war by supporting some supposedly secular and democratic anti-Assad militias. These proved unreliable and ineffective in comparison to Islamist militias, including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front.
Two years ago, Russia began using air power to bolster the beleaguered Syrian government forces and joined Iran, which had already dispatched commanders and militias from Iraq and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, to help Assad. The joint aid helped drive Islamist rebels from several towns and notably, from Aleppo, the country’s biggest city.
As Russia took control of Syrian air space, Obama negotiated a pact with Moscow to avoid aerial conflict in case the U.S. wanted to bomb the Islamic State. The cooperation took the form of a “deconfliction hotline,” which are communications that permitted early warnings of U.S. or Russian air action. Otherwise, Obama was left on the sidelines – especially after 2013, when he declined to punish Assad for using chemical weapons on civilians.
Instead, he focused only on attacking the Islamic State, which has inspired terrorism in the U.S. and Europe. Russia, meanwhile, hosted several peace talks aimed at ending the war and leaving Assad in power.
Enter Trump. He had campaigned for president talking vaguely about safe zones for refugees in northern Syria. Obama had rejected such an option for fear of military engagement. Trump seems unconcerned about military action, at least at low intensity.
Last April, he launched missiles at a Syrian air base in response to a chemical weapons attack on Idlib province. In May and again in early June, the U.S. bombed Syrian forces near al-Tanf, where Syria’s border meets Jordan’s and Iraq’s. Al-Tanf also lies on the highway between Baghdad and Damascus.
On Sunday, the U.S. shot down a Syrian jet, claiming it had bombed U.S.-backed anti-Assad forces near Raqqa, where the Islamic State maintains a stronghold. The Syrian government denied the accusation and said its airplane was bombing the Islamic State.
So: What was extraordinary in May by June has become routine.
The Trump administration has announced that no Syrian forces should enter “deconfliction zones,” either by air or on the ground. It’s something rather different from the “deconfliction hotline.” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking in Beijing, said the U.S. has unilaterally invented such zones, be they near Tanf, Raqqa or other parts of Syria.
While Trump’s public justification is based on protecting U.S. militia allies, his military moves both in northern and southeastern Syria also have the effect of blocking Iranian military and logistical traffic through Iraq into Syria. If this is the goal, it fits into Trump’s general anti-Iran attitudes.
Over all, Trump’s policy, like so much of his incipient foreign ventures, has not really been spelled out. The State Department has yet to lay out some sort of Trump Doctrine and Congress, as it has been since the 2003 Iraq War, seems disinterested in deeply probing U.S. military activity. Elsewhere, Trump has taken a slightly harder line than Obama on Cuba, put on a display of naval power designed to scare North Korea out of its infatuation with long range missile testing and has sort of warned China against its efforts to dominate its coastal seas. Trump apparently plans to send reinforcements to Afghanistan, but his end-game there is not clear.
In short, Trump is clearly more aggressive than Obama, if only incrementally. On the other hand, he is not following the heavy handed interventions of George Bush who tried to remake the Middle East via the Iraq War.
With so many players making so many moves, it’s a dangerous time. Everywhere there is creeping conflict. Russia’s destabilizing of Ukraine. China’s claim to tiny South China Sea outcroppings. Saudi Arabia’s continued war in Yemen, along with its pressure on Qatar. Just the other day, Iran flexed its muscle by sending missiles into Syria for the first time, to bomb an Islamic State stronghold of Idlib, in western Syria. The attack was arried out in retaliation for the terror attack in June on the parliament building and a shrine to Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran, the Iranians said. Or was it a message that Iran, too, can strike from afar?
Maybe this is all, in historian Barbara Tuchman’s phrase, a March of Folly, in which governments historically make avoidable errors that lead to disaster. Hope not.