The White House appears to have issued a new ultimatum regarding the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons without consulting U.S. military commanders. At the same time, the Pentagon is already struggling to keep its activities in the country focused on ISIS and not let the situation explode into a multifaceted fight involving dictator Bashar Al Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
Late on June 26, 2017, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer issued a statement warning of a potential new Syrian military chemical weapons strike aimed at innocent civilians. The notice included a threat pointed directly at Assad and his military.
“As we have previously stated, the United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” Spicer wrote. “If, however, Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”
Other members of President Donald Trump’s administration confirmed the message, which was akin to President Barack Obama’s infamous “red line” comments on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical warfare in the country’s long running and brutal civil war. The U.S. military had already conducted a punitive and largely ineffectual cruise missile attack on Syria’s Shayrat Air Base after an earlier chemical weapons incident in the town of Khan Shaykhun on April 4, 2017.
In that strike, the Pentagon had alerted Russian forces ahead of time via a hotline the two had previously established to deconflict air operations the region. There were reports that the Kremlin had advisers at the base at the time, but it was unclear if they knew or were otherwise involved in the employment of chemical weapons.
In a Tweet, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley made it clear the Trump Administration would hold Russian and Iranian authorities equally responsible for any future incidents. “Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia & Iran who support him killing his own people,” she declared. Not surprisingly, Syria and Russia denied planning any chemical weapons attacks. the Kremlin decried the White House message as "unacceptable."
Relations between Washington, Moscow, and Tehran are already cool for a variety of reasons. With regards to Russia, American officials have repeatedly accused the Kremlin of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and remain unhappy with Moscow's continued interference in Ukraine and support for Assad. Officials in Washington have long condemned Iran's continued nuclear ambitions, ballistic missile developments, and support for terrorist groups aboard. On June 15, 2017, the U.S. Senate voted for its latest round of sanctions on both countries. All of this has recently become wrapped up in a broader crisis in the Middle East, centered on a political dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, too.
But more importantly, it wasn’t entirely clear what prompted the flurry of threats. According to Fox News, unnamed U.S. defense officials confirmed intelligence showed new “activity” near a hangar associated with the April 2017 chemical attack. They did not seem to suggest the information implied an imminent movement of weapons ahead of a new strike.
Buzzfeed News said they reached five more anonymous sources, who all said they were unsure what specific information had led the White House to make the announcement. One individual, reportedly from U.S. Central Command, the U.S. military’s top warfighting headquarters for the Middle East and Central Asia, said they had “no idea” about the content of the press release or its origins. The Pentagon, the State Department, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have all referred journalists seeking answers to the White House. “We are letting the statement speak for itself,” Marc Raimondi, a National Security Council spokesman at the White House, told The New York Times.
All the indications are that, while there may be intelligence evidence to support it, the Trump Administration went ahead with this statement without coordinating with its military officials at home or in the region. This is especially concerning given that American troops in Syria, ostensibly working with local rebels to fight ISIS terrorists, have continued to creep closer to a broader conflict with the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers, all of who the White House has now threatened publicly. It also seems to fly in the face of recent comments Secretary of Defense Mattis had just made on the need to keep focused on the counter-terrorism mission.
“How do you avoid mission creep?” Mattis said on June 26, 2017 en route to Germany and Brussels for meetings with NATO allies. “You stay focused on where the enemy is and you set up any number of coordination efforts if you’re getting near converging forces, either Assad regime or Russian. You have to assume there are either Iranian officered or Lebanese Hezbollah elements with them. So what we do is we keep moving against ISIS.”
“‘As you mix more forces more closely together,’ the risk increases,” he continued, according to Stars and Stripes. “You’ve got to really play this thing very carefully. … The closer we get [to defeating ISIS] the more complex it gets.”
He’s definitely not wrong. That the United States is only in Syria to fight ISIS and has no desire to violently unseat Assad, who has waged a separate and brutal civil war against his own people since 2011, has long been the Pentagon’s official line. American forces operate under a complicated and sometimes dubious set of legal authorities. The primary justification is the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which turned the U.S. military loose against Al Qaeda and its affiliates worldwide. The U.S. government’s position is that ISIS is just the latest incarnation of Al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq and therefore covered under the existing statute.
To aid in this counter-terrorism campaign, however, the Pentagon and American intelligence agencies have enlisted the help of Arab and Kurdish rebel groups who have or may even continue to express a desire to ultimately see Assad deposed and a new Syrian regime emerge. In the case of Kurdish groups, specifically the People’s Protection Units, more commonly known by its acronym YPG, they may even have designs on a new, independent state.
On the other side, Syrian government and its allies insist there is no meaningful distinction between “terrorists” battling the Assad regime and Islamist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. Conspiracy theories abound about the United States and its allies, chiefly Saudi Arabia, actively sponsoring terrorists. They also question the true motives of officials in Washington, especially after the missile strike on Shayrat. Russian and Iranian motivations to support the government in Damascus seem more rooted in strategic geopolitical calculations, as we are The War Zone have already written about extensively.
As ISIS’ shadow state crumbles and the group increasingly goes underground, the conflicting goals of these different actors have become increasingly apparent. Assad and his partners know that once the terrorists cease to be a significant threat, the same groups the United States supports are likely to turn their attention back to the regime. American forces have already found themselves in the middle of an on-again off-again battle between its NATO ally Turkey and Kurdish forces. Turkish officials have been less than convinced by U.S. government pronouncements that it can recover weapons from Kurdish groups it sees as enemies of the state.
So it’s not surprising that since the beginning of June 2017, U.S. troops in the country have increasingly come under threat from both the Syrian regime and Iranian-backed militias. On June 8, 2017, the U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle shot down an apparent Shahed 129 drone that attempted to attack an American-supported garrison in the southern Syrian town of At Tanf, a strategic location near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders. The unmanned aircraft may have attempted to drop a small precision guided munitions on Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) forces and their U.S. advisers. On June 20, 2017, another Strike Eagle blew up a second Shahed 129 in the same area. In between, a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet blasted a Syrian Arab Air Force Su-22 Fitter ground attack jet out of the sky after it struck Syrian Defense Force (SDF) elements – a coalition of groups including the SAC and the YPG – near the equally important Al Tabqa Dam.
All of this has only further inflamed existing tensions. After the Su-22 shoot down in particular, Russia initially threatened to target American warplanes with its own air defenses in Syria, including its long range S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries. Officials in Moscow later walked these statements back, which only served to highlight just how fluid the situation could be on the ground and in the air. Another attack, especially one that kills U.S. troops, could easily spark a major international incident where all the parties involved might find it difficult to deescalate away quickly or at all because of their past public statements.
To further underscore the dangers inherent in the Pentagon's operations Syria, despite official statements, its attempts to use the deconfliction hotline with the Russians to prevent these incidents to begin with appear to have largely failed. Realistically, how could it be any other way? The connection only exists because of a fragile agreement between U.S. and Russia and only links their regional commanders at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar and Latakia Air Base in Syria respectively. It does not offer any direct communication between American personnel and Syrian, Iranian, or militia forces. The Pentagon routinely confirms as much in the language of its press releases, saying thing such as “The Coalition has made it clear to all parties publicly and through the de-confliction line with Russian forces” – our emphasis added.
This means a representative of U.S. government calls an individual answering on behalf of Russian authorities and Russian authorities alone. The American can insist that they pass the information along to their partners, but there is no indication there is any follow-up or repercussions if the message doesn’t go through or doesn’t have the desired effect. It seems unwise to rely at all on this mechanism to halt aggressive movements against U.S. forces or their partners, especially after the attack on Shayrat, which only seemed to push Russia and Syria closer together.
“We just refuse to get drawn into a fight there in the Syria civil war,” Mattis insisted to the reporters traveling with him to Europe.
Unfortunately, while the United States might not be interested in getting involved in the Syrian civil war, that conflict is increasingly poised to involve Americans, whether they like it or not – if it hasn’t already. The Trump administration’s threat, especially in light of Trump’s own criticism of Obama’s “red line” statement, only makes it harder for the Pentagon that war separate from its campaign against ISIS.
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