While Trump Tweets, Assad and Putin Advance in Syria

Steve Coll

APTOPIX Mideast Syria Back to Palmyra

In normal political times, when a President attacks another country and makes bold claims about what his warfare will achieve, the press will stay on the case in the following weeks, reporting on how things have turned out. In Donald Trump times, this is only one of many rules of accountability to have vanished behind his Presidency’s fog machine of manufactured distraction, legal crises, and eroding governance.

After a period of relative quiescence, the machine is back on full throttle. Over the weekend, the President returned to Twitter as the terror attacks in London unfolded. Starting Saturday, he issued eleven tweets attacking the city’s mayor, the media, and even his own Justice Department. The latter he scolded for not ardently defending a more sweeping version of his proposed travel ban before the Supreme Court. Once again, by using reckless and direct language about the ban’s discriminatory foundation, he undermined the efforts of his own government to persuade the courts that his intentions are constitutional. “People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a ‘TRAVEL BAN,’ “ he wrote on Monday morning.

Trump’s foreign policy so far is a lot like his Twitter feed: destabilizing, embarrassing, and damaging to the very interests that he seeks to promote, including the security of the American public. His missile attack on Syria is a case study of the geopolitical consequences of his incoherence. After sending mixed messages about Syria’s war, Trump entered the fray when scores of civilians died in the April 4th chemical-weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which U.S. intelligence attributed to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russian forces reportedly bombed a local hospital, apparently to help cover up the atrocity. On the evening of April 6th, Trump ordered fifty-nine cruise missiles to be launched against an airbase in Syria—the attack he infamously announced to the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, during the dessert course at Mar-a-Lago.

That night, Trump appeared on national television to explain that he had acted because “it is in the vital national-security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” He also called “on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.” That hasn’t happened. Assad’s regime has apparently not used chemical weapons since April 6th, so Trump may have achieved some measure of deterrence. Yet the Damascus government continues to stonewall international inspectors who are charged with insuring Syria’s chemical disarmament. As of yet, none have been able to visit the scene of the April 4th attack.

More broadly, the Trump Administration’s policy in the region has evolved into a destabilizing muddle. From Afghanistan to Syria, the Administration is prioritizing military escalation over political strategy. It has enabled and armed Saudi Arabia’s chest-thumping autocracy, which continues to press its war in Yemen, where a quarter of the population faces famine and where cholera is spreading even in the capital, Sanaa. On Monday, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt announced an unprecedented break with Qatar, an important American ally in the region. The Saudis apparently read the Trump Administration’s recent display of unconditional love and its expressed disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood as permission to take radical action against Qatar, which has backed the Brotherhood. (According to the Financial Times, they were particularly incensed by a ransom of as much as a billion dollars that the Qataris had paid to an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria and to Iranian security officials, in order to obtain the release of members of a royal hunting party who had been kidnapped in Iraq.) The episode is merely the latest example of the unintended consequences of a Middle East policy carried out by a gut-instinct White House, with a son-in-law functioning as special envoy, an ascendant Pentagon, and an eviscerated State Department.

All this has left Syria once again in a state of isolation characterized by mass civilian suffering. The Trump Administration’s line, similar to that of the Obama Administration in its final years—though, of course, more bombastic—is that the first order of business must be the destruction of the Islamic State. Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently said, on “Face the Nation,” that, whereas the Obama Administration fought a war of “attrition” against the Islamic State, the Trump Administration had adopted a war of “annihilation.” The former was a war “where we shove them from one position to another,” whereas in the latter “we surround them” and kill all the foreign fighters, so that they cannot return to commit acts of terrorism in their home countries. Already, unsurprisingly, this tactical change—which sounds more like a state of mind than a battle plan—has led to spikes in civilian casualties, with more ahead, particularly in Mosul, the largest city controlled by the Islamic State.

Syria is a quagmire for every outside power involved in the war there, but Russia is advancing more successfully than the United States is on its goals—strengthening Assad, projecting power in the Middle East, and thwarting or complicating American and European aims. Russian troops stationed around the city of Homs, where Assad’s forces have been gradually retaking rebel-held areas, have been supervising the forcible removal of thousands of civilians and rebel fighters, in an apparent violation of international law. The evacuees have been promised safe passage to other rebel areas, but they have little choice about their resettlement. Meanwhile, on May 15th, the State Department released photographs indicating that Assad’s regime had constructed a large crematorium to burn the corpses of the people—approximately fifty each day—whom authorities hang at Saydnaya military prison, outside Damascus. Over the weekend, Assad told an interviewer from India that the civil war was moving in the “right direction,” adding, “the worst is behind us.” He still remains far from achieving an outright military victory, but the more confident he becomes, and the more Russia covers for his war crimes, the less likely he is to ever participate in a political settlement.

As for the promises and the warnings that Trump issued after the April cruise-missile attack, it’s not clear who in the cast of powers is still paying attention to them. In an interview broadcast on NBC, on Sunday night, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Megyn Kelly that Trump’s claim about the attack on Khan Sheikhoun was just fake news. “As of now, we are absolutely convinced that this was a provocation,” Putin said. “Assad did not use those weapons.”