The questions concerning American policy towards Syria got a boost with the newest book by Bob Woodward, “Fear.”
According to Woodward, Trump wanted to have the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, assassinated last year but his defense secretary ignored the request. According to the book, Trump told the defense secretary, Jim Mattis that he wanted to have president Assad assassinated after it was alleged that the Syrian president launched a chemical attack on civilians in April 2017. “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” Trump said, according to Woodward.
Mattis told Trump he would “get right on it” but instead developed a plan for a limited air strike that did not threaten President Assad personally.
However, before taking the book’s report as the unvarnished truth, remember that previous Woodward books have had serious questions raised about the truthfulness of some of Woodward’s sources. It’s also important to remember that Trump has a tendency to make exaggerated claims or statements, and outbursts that may not reflect US policy or even Trump’s thinking in a more serious moment.
However, there is no doubt that there is some difference of opinion in terms of Syrian policy. During the campaign, Trump insisted that the US defeat ISIS and then quickly leave Syria, which put him at odds with the powerful Senator McCain (who died last week). And, although ISIS is no longer a threat, there is a considerable American presence in Northeast Syria.
Although the most vocal advocate of regime change in Syria, Senator John McCain, is dead (which will probably have a major impact on Syrian policy in the near future), there are still many in Washington and the Trump Administration that favor ridding the region of President Assad. One such official is John Bolton, the president’s National Security Advisor.
However, he isn’t the only one.
In 2013, top Obama Administration officials described their policy in the Syrian War as one of keeping the war going. The administration wanted a say in terms of the final political settlement.
The Trump Administration seems to be slipping into that same policy priorities in Syria. Last week, the Washington Post quoted an unnamed Administration official as saying that “right now, our job is to help create quagmires (for Russia and the Syrian regime) until we get what we want.”
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said the UN Security Council would meet on Friday to discuss the precarious situation in the Idlib province. Turkey has held several rounds of talks with Syria ally Russia aimed at averting an assault on Idlib, but Moscow dubbed the region a "pocket of terrorism."
The truth is that there are many facets to American policy towards Syria. President Trump seems to be more conciliatory and willing to accept that president Assad remains in charge of Syria.
However, there are many who see any role for President Assad in a post war Syria as a failure of their policy. National Security Advisor Bolton, the late Senator McCain, Republican “Neocons,” and many in the Obama Administration fall into this camp.
Another camp sees the Syrian war as a continuation of the conflict with Putin and Russia. To them, allowing President Assad to remain in power is to give Russia more influence in the region.
On the opposite side of the argument are those who see an Assad win as a victory for Iran and its allies in the region. This side includes Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
There are also those who don’t mind an Assad controlled Syria, as long as the Kurds get some sort of self-autonomy region as a protectorate of US. Many in the US military are in this camp as the Kurds have been loyal US allies for decades.
The current concern is with Russia’s military assistance of Syria in ridding the Idlib region of all armed groups that opposing the government. On Labor Day, Trump Twittered, “President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province. The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in the potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen.”
Last Friday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also issued a statement ahead of the imminent Syrian and Russian campaign to liberate Idlib from rebel control. Pompeo said via Twitter: "The 3 million Syrians, who have already been forced out of their homes and are now in Idlib, will suffer from this aggression. Not good. The world is watching."
Ironically, the US claimed this region was rife with ISIS militants and had few problems with attacks just last year.
The US versus Russia
The anti-Russian elements in Washington are gearing up for a possible US-Damascus-Russia confrontation in response to Assad's military action in Idlib. This has gone so far as to claim that Syria is planning another chemical weapons attack, even though CW is traditionally the weapon of the losing side.
On Tuesday after learning that the Russian had begun bombing Idlib province, the White House issued a statement saying that it will, “Respond swiftly and appropriately,” if Syrian government forces used chemical weapons.
“Let us be clear, it remains our firm stance that if President Bashar al-Assad chooses to again use chemical weapons, the United States and its Allies will respond swiftly and appropriately.”
UN Ambassador Haley added: "What you are seeing is the president saying to Iran, Russia and Assad 'don't go there...' Do not let a chemical attack happen on the people of Idlib."
One proof that Russia and Syria are prepared for some sort of US response is the addition of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) weapons to the Russian arsenal in and around Syria. Since none of the rebels have submarines, this is obviously to counter the American fleet in the Mediterranean.
On Septenber 1st, two Tu-142MK maritime reconnaissance and ASW aircraft arrived in Hmeimim, Syria from Russia. They had been escorted by Su-35 fighter aircraft.
Hmeimim is the base where most Russian aircraft operate out of.
The two aircraft are expected to assist the Russian Navy in exercises off the coast of Syria. This is the largest naval armada since the Syrian war according to the Russian defense ministry. It includes 25 warships led by the Marshall Ustinov missile cruiser and 30 aircraft.
Clearly, Russia is making it clear that an American cruise missile attack against Syria can be met with force.
This is a major Russian presence and is larger than the permanently stationed US Fleet in the Mediterranean. If the US intends to act against Syria in the face of this Russian maritime presence it will have to call upon naval assets in the Arabian Sea and the US Second Fleet.
Can this Russian fleet counter any American actions? It depends.
Today’s Russian Navy is quite different from that of the Cold War. Unlike the Soviet fleet, which was designed to sortie out and deliver massive missile barrages against NATO ships, the new Russian fleet is designed to stay on station longer. The ships also have more advanced defense systems than before.
The one exception to this is the Russian cruiser Marshall Ustinov, which was built during the Cold War. It can fire a massive volley of missiles and has the major offensive capability of the Russian fleet off Syria.
Unlike the Marshall Ustinov, the Russian warships off Syria are predominately destroyers, frigates, and light warships that can carry out ASW operations and provide air defense.
The problem for the Russian task force is that it has limited effective defense against American aircraft carriers. Although American carriers are rarely stationed in the Mediterranean now, they are capable of launching attacks against ships off the Syrian coast from the Arabian Gulf or the Red Sea. There are also the NATO aircraft stationed on land bases around the region.
Which brings us back to the question, is the US willing to assassinate President Assad?
According to many experts here in Washington and previous US officials, assassination has never been a successful US strategy from the aborted attempts against Castro to the forays into Libya and Iraq, which ended in the death of the national leadership and the nations’ decent into anarchy and civil war.
A military analyst asked about the matter responded: “Syria is clearly a nation where the assassination of president Assad would lead to a major war, threatened the unity of Syria, and probably the spread of chaos into neighboring nations”.
He added:”The assassination of President Assad might very well solidify the alliance between Russia and Iran”.
From US point of view, doing nothing insures that Russia and Iran will part ways.
Considering the fact that the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey are already engaged in the current conflicts throughout the region, killing Assad will only lead to more problems, not less.
With McCain’s death and his replacement by less vocal Senator Jon Kyle, the strong push for involvement in Syria will probably die down. This will give Trump a chance to reconsider his position during the campaign of deescalating the conflict in Syria.
In that case, Trump’s comments about killing president Assad may be seen more as an expression of frustration than a change in US policy.