The Syrian government’s chemical attack on civilians in the rebel-held suburb of Douma this weekend is the complete responsibility of the war criminal Bashar Assad, his Russian bedfellows, and his Iranian bankers. However, the fact that President Trump had announced that the U.S. is nearly finished its mission to defeat ISIS (which is questionable) and wants to leave Syria quickly may have encouraged the others to speed up their efforts to divide Syria’s corpse.
An independent country for only two years longer than the State of Israel, Syria has reverted to its prior status as space across which the competing interests of bigger empires and armies are played out. President Trump claims to be uninterested in who rules Damascus — which is wise of him — but the aggressive partition of Syrian territory by Russia, Iran, Turkey and ISIS has security implications for the United States and our regional allies that cannot be ignored.
Syria — as land — has had many masters:
- Persia’s Cyrus the Great beginning in 539 BCE.
- Macedonia’s Alexander the Great in 333-332 BCE.
- Rome’s Pompey the Great captured it in 64 BCE.
- The Byzantine Empire in 395 CE.
- The Muslims arrived in the mid-7th century — the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, the Ayyubid, Zingid and Hamdanid Dynasties.
- Crusader states followed by Assassins, Mamluks, and Mongols until the Ottoman Empire conquered the space in 1516 CE.
- The French after WWI.
- The only ever independent Syria was established in 1946.
Today, Russia claims that the Syrian government controls 85% of the country, but although it can (with cover from its allies) drop poison chemicals on civilians in much of the country, Damascus does not and cannot govern 85% of anything.
Russia props up and abets the criminality of the Assad regime, maintaining positions along the northeastern part of the coast where it has two naval bases and an airbase in generally secure Alawite territory. According to White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, “It is also now clear that Russia has betrayed its obligations to guarantee the end of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons program.”
Turkey occupies a slice of northern Syria as part of its effort to kill as many Kurds as possible. The Kurds had two unconnected areas in which they are the majority — Turkey now pretty much controls one; the Kurds hope the U.S. will protect them in the other, or they may turn to Iran for help against Turkey.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) manages 80,000+ militiamen in Syria, partially comprised of Syrians but with large Lebanese Hezbollah units and Shiite mercenary groups of Pakistanis and Afghans. Iran is said to control more Syrian soldiers than the Syrian government. And there are still Sunni anti-government forces, whether the U.S. supports them or not.
ISIS still has about 3,000 fighters straddling the area between Syria and Iraq — enough to do damage.
The triumvirate of Russia, Iran and Turkey met last week to assert their interests, announcing that their troops would remain in the country for the foreseeable future in what is most appropriately known as imperial occupation.
President Trump has been clear that Iran’s land-grab across Iraq and Syria — plus its proxy state in Lebanon governed by Hezbollah — poses a threat to American interests and allies. Defense Secretary James Mattis declined to rule out retaliation for Syria’s weekend chemical strikes. Israel has been explicit about its determination to prevent Iran from creating a permanent presence in Syria, and backed it up with an airstrike this weekend. (It was reported that Washington, but not Moscow, was notified in advance.)
As the U.S. has no designs on the control of Syrian territory, although the U.S. might change its mind, it should limit its interference on the ground to:
- Punishing Syria for violating the international consensus against the use of CW;
- Protecting its Kurdish allies;
- Helping Israel ensure that Iran cannot establish a “Shi’ite crescent” by physically linking its presence in Iraq to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah bases close to the Israeli border should be treated as if they are Iranian bases.
This is not the time for the United States to be suggesting that its interest in the ramifications of Syria’s demise has flagged. Rather, the U.S. its allies and its adversaries should understand that the president intends to push back on Syria’s criminal behavior, Iran’s regional threat posture, and Russia and Turkey’s delusions of empire.