What comes after the ‘gas killing animal’ is bombed?
U.S. President Donald Trump woke up on April 11 and once again bombarded Twitter with messages targeting his long-time buddy Vladimir Putin over his support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who the U.S. sees as responsible for last week’s chemical attack in Douma that killed at least 80 people. The aftermath has been mayhem, and Trump’s national security staff – similar to all foreign policy-related crises of the last 15 months – are struggling to put the president’s wishes and commands in a rational perspective.
Nobody in the Trump administration thinks the U.S. should remain silent in the face of al-Assad’s recent atrocity, just the latest episode of the regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people. However, for the U.S. security establishment the trouble is finding a way to do that without triggering a Third World War with Russia and its allies in the Syrian theater.
It seems that in consecutive meetings at the Situation Room over the last three days Defense Secretary James Mattis, generals and intelligence chiefs have persuaded Trump to calibrate the possible response to the al-Assad regime and coordinate it with the U.K. and France. The Pentagon has no appetite to launch a massive air offensive aimed at overthrowing al-Assad. A more likely scenario, according to U.S. media reports, is that eight selective locations will be targeted including two Syrian airfields, a research center and a chemical weapons facility.
If this possible attack on the regime’s facilities does not turn into an extended offensive, will it still carry the potential to influence the big picture for future Syria?
According to Ambassador Fred Hof, who was appointed as special adviser for transition in Syria by President Obama in 2012 but left the job due a divide between their preferred methods of solution, the answer to the question above is a big “no.” Hof argues that if al-Assad sees the expected offensive by the U.S. like he saw the incident one year ago - as a one-time, one-off event - then it will accomplish precisely nothing.
We listened to Hof’s remarks just hours after Trump had threatened to fire his “nice, new and smart” missiles to Syria. He was speaking in a packed room in Washington in his last appearance as director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Among his many insightful observations, one was particularly striking: Hof said that in the context of discussions over the future of Syria, Moscow has been trying to assure the U.S. that it can secure a constitutional replacement for al-Assad in a process that would lead the country to elections in 2021 or 2022. While stressing that it is hard to determine whether this is just a bid to buy time so the Russians can consolidate al-Assad in power, Hof suggested that if Moscow can bring al-Assad out of the homicide business then the U.S. will have a basis for working together.
Another notable point he made was similar to what Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk suggested at a U.S. Peace Institute panel last week. McGurk implied that while Ankara fixates over the U.S. partnership with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the al-Assad regime and other actors are also talking to the YPG.
The inevitable shadow of fundamentally different positions within the Ankara-Moscow-Tehran trio – despite recent rapprochement - emerged with the horrific Douma attack, which occurred just three days after that famous photo was taken of Erdoğan, Putin and Putin uniting hands. That picture made its way to incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s confirmation hearing, with Senator Bob Menendez referring to Turkey as “supposedly a NATO ally that is purchasing S-400s despite mandatory sanctions that Congress has passed.”
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently annoyed Ankara by openly stating that Moscow expects Turkey to hand Afrin back to the Syrian regime. Lavrov’s remarks are a clear indication that Moscow’s support for Operation Olive Branch does not necessarily mean carte blanche for Ankara’s intention to remain in Afrin.
The analysis provided by Hof and McGurk, as well as Lavrov’s sharp statement, all point in the same direction. Firstly, it is not possible for Ankara to trust Russia without any reservations in the context of Syria. Secondly, wiping the YPG from east of the Euphrates will require a great deal of negotiation with the regime.
As a result, whatever happens in the Mediterranean over the next few days it is unlikely that it will make life easier for Turkey. Syria will be no zero-sum game in which Ankara can both get rid of the al-Assad regime and the YPG. The saddest part is that while the superpowers are talking about plans for three years from now, the Turks cannot even talk about what lies ahead in three months.