This latest [chemical] attack in Ghouta, if it holds to the pattern, makes perfect sense in the calculus of Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The successful trio wants first and foremost to subdue the remaining rebels in Syria, with an eye toward the several million people remaining in rebel-held Idlib province. A particularly heinous death for the holdouts in Ghouta, according to this military logic, might discourage the rebels in Idlib from fighting to the bitter end. Equally important, however, is the desire to corral Trump as Syria, Russia, and Iran did his predecessor, Barack Obama.
After the humiliating August 2013 “non-strike event,” when Obama changed his mind about his “red line” and decided not to react to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the Syrians had America in a box. The White House signed up for a chemical disarmament plan that proved a farce. By the time the agreement had unraveled and Assad was back to using chemical weapons against Syrian citizens, the public no longer cared and Obama was busy discussing his foreign policy legacy.
Trump’s Middle East policy remains a mystery. He has long appeared unconcerned with rising Russian power in the Middle East, but today tweeted that there would be a “big price” for Russia, Iran, and Syria to pay. He seems to prefer a smaller U.S. military footprint, talking repeatedly about pulling troops out of Syria and Iraq. He’s savaged the deal that shelved Iran’s nuclear program, and doesn’t appear impressed by the shabby chemical-weapons agreement in Syria. He doesn’t seem interested in a long-term strategic engagement in the Arab world, but he’s also not interested in propping up the status quo. His reaction to the Khan Sheikhoun attack a year ago aligned with these preferences: He abhorred the attack and spoke with uncharacteristic humanity about the children killed by Assad, and ordered a pointed but limited response. He wasn’t interested in escalating or intervening against Russia or Assad, but he also had no interest in pacifying or reassuring them.
One result of Trump’s confusing Syria policy is that Assad and his backers can’t quite be sure what America is planning—a pullout or a pushback. Hence another chemical attack, which will test the range of America’s response and, perhaps, will paint Trump into the same corner where Obama’s Syria policy languished.
For Assad, there is utility in such a feint, and no real risk. In 2013, he and the rest of the region braced in fear for an expected American response, which was widely expected to jolt the regional state of affairs. Assad has learned his lessons since then. No meaningful American response will be forthcoming, no matter how hideous the war crime. [Continue reading…]