Trump Weighs Options In Syria While His Twitter Taunting Foolishly Risks Escalation
President Trump took to Twitter this morning and decided poke a stick in the eye of the Russian bear.
With reports indicating that President Trump is reportedly considering a more robust military strike against Syria than what we saw last year, Russia has responded by warning the United States that its defensives systems will shoot down any missiles the United States may send toward Syria and that it is prepared to respond in other ways to a U.S. attack on its Syrian ally, the President lashed out on Twitter this morning in a manner that significantly raises tensions in the region and sends the United States on what could be a collision course with Russia in one of the most unstable parts of the world:
WASHINGTON — President Trump put Syria and Russia on notice Wednesday morning in a Twitter post, promising that missiles fired at Syria “will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!'” and telling the Kremlin that it should not partner with a “Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” After the threat, the president said in a separate tweet that relations between the United States and Russia are worse than ever.
The president appeared to be reacting to reports on Tuesday that the Russian ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, warned the United States and its allies that any missiles fired at Syria would be shot down. He made those comments in an interview with Al Manar Television.
Mr. Trump’s early morning comments were remarkable in that he is, in a way, telegraphing the United States’ response to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, which is something he had previously criticized other leaders for doing. Mr. Trump has said publicly that sharing military plans could give enemies information they could use to their advantage. Bracing for a strike, there were already indications that Syria was moving key aircraft to a Russian base in the Mediterranean Sea, taking pains to protect important weapons systems.
But the president’s subsequent tweet struck a different tone. After he warned Russia what it would be up against in Syria, Mr. Trump lamented that relations between the two countries were worse than during the Cold War, a decades-long geopolitical and ideological rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union when both were armed for, and prepared for, nuclear war.
Russia has blamed the suspected chemical attacks on the Syrian opposition forces. On Wednesday, Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, said that if the American missiles were so smart then they should hit “terrorists” and not government targets. She also suggested in a posting on Facebook that the missile attack might destroy evidence of the use of chemical weapons.
Mr. Trump has been critical of Russia and its president, Vladimir V. Putin, for supporting the Syrian regime, led by Bashar al-Assad, believed to be behind the suspected chemical weapons attack on April 7 that has left dozens dead.
The attack on Saturday in the Damascus suburb of Douma has not been confirmed to be the result of a chemical weapon.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Wednesday that the United States is still assessing the intelligence on the suspected chemical attack, but that military planning was proceeding.
“We stand ready to provide military options if they’re appropriate, as the president determined,” he said.
The World Health Organization said on Wednesday that there were reports of about 500 people in the Damascus suburb of Douma who have symptoms similar to people exposed to toxic chemicals. It said about 70 people had died while taking shelter in basements and 43 of them had signs of being exposed to “highly toxic chemicals.”
The United Nations Security Council, on Tuesday, considered but did not approve rival resolutions from the United States and Russia regarding how to determine who is responsible for the attack.
Mr. Trump’s comments about poor relations with Russia echoed what the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said recently in response to the wave of diplomatic expulsions of Russians from the United States and other countries, according to a Reuters report. The expulsions were a coordinated response to the poisoning in Britain of a former Russian spy and his daughter. Since then, analysts have said the Balkans could become a battleground for a new Cold War.
Here are the President’s Tweets, including one in which he bizarrely blames the state of our relationship with Russia on the Mueller investigation:
Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2018
Our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War. There is no reason for this. Russia needs us to help with their economy, something that would be very easy to do, and we need all nations to work together. Stop the arms race?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2018
Much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation, headed up by the all Democrat loyalists, or people that worked for Obama. Mueller is most conflicted of all (except Rosenstein who signed FISA & Comey letter). No Collusion, so they go crazy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2018
As many have noted, Trump’s taunting lies in stark contrast to his rhetoric as a candidate, when he criticized President Obama and others for allegedly telegraphing American military and foreign policy in advance. As recently as April of last year when tensions with North Korea were beginning to rise, for example, Trump said in an interview that he would not state what he might do in response to the DPRK’s missile tests. “I don’t want to telegraph what I am doing or what I am thinking,” Mr. Trump said. “I am not like other administrations, where they say, ‘We are going to do this in four weeks.’ It doesn’t work that way. We’ll see what happens.” As a candidate, Trump took much the same position and often mocked former President Obama for allegedly giving our adversaries too much information about American military plans by setting timelines for the withdrawal of American forces from nations such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Of course, this is the same person who recently said he wanted to pull American troops out of Syria even while his own White House was pushing back on the idea, so it’s rather obvious that the whole idea of telegraphing plans is one that Trump has decided is useful in certain situations, just as his predecessors did.
Leaving aside the hypocrisy of Trump’s tweeting, as Daniel Larison notes the President’s taunting of Russia on Twitter even as American forces are headed into a potential military confrontation is especially dangerous:
Trump’s childish boasting is what we have come to expect from him, but in this case it is especially alarming as it makes a clash with Russia over Syria even more likely. The stupidity of taunting a major power is nothing compared with the stupidity of the impending illegal attack that Trump is going to order in the days ahead. Russia will take Trump’s taunt as a challenge to stand by its client in spite of the attack, and the attack itself risks killing Russian personnel that would create a new crisis with a nuclear-armed state. It bears repeating that there is nothing in Syria worth courting great power conflict over, and there certainly aren’t vital U.S. interests there to be defended. Attacking Syria has the potential to start a larger war, and the U.S. has no need to launch this attack. If Trump follows through on his foolish threats, he will be starting one of the most reckless wars of choice in our history.
In another post, Larison notes that, while previous American action in the War On Terror generally and in Syria specifically have been largely without consequences, it seems clear that we’re ignoring the rather obvious risks of escalation here and of becoming more deeply involved in a conflict that we do not win and which we most likely cannot win:
The U.S. has become so used to taking military action without fear of meaningful retaliation that I worry that no one in Washington is taking the possibility of retaliation seriously enough. Last year’s attack on Syria was small enough that the U.S. was able to “get away” with doing it without sparking a larger conflict, but we shouldn’t assume that is how things will work this time. Relations with both Russia and Iran are extremely poor right now, and attacking the Syrian government is sure to make those relations much worse. It may not take much to provoke them into attacks on U.S. or U.S.-backed forces in Syria and elsewhere. That in turn would prompt demands from our own hard-liners to escalate again and again.
The U.S. has a poor track record of understanding how our adversaries see the world, so a brief thought experiment may be helpful. Imagine if the positions were reversed and Russia was the one threatening to attack an American ally that was in the midst of a civil war that included a Russian-backed insurgency. Wouldn’t the U.S. respond to an attack on an ally even if our own forces weren’t hit?
Larison is correct on both counts, of course.
Leaving aside the propriety of striking at Syria over the use of chemical weapons, which I discussed at length yesterday, the idea of doing so in a manner that would needlessly provoke either Russia or Iran is absolutely insane. While it’s true that Bashar Assad would most likely not be in power today were it not for the aid and assistance that he’s been provided by those two nations, there is simply no good reason for the United States to risk a wider conflict over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and certainly no good reason for a President of the United States to be taunting a nuclear power via Twitter as if he was a twelve-year-old making fun of another kid in school on social media. It’s juvenile, stupid, and potentially dangerous because it makes it more likely that whatever steps we do or don’t take will be misinterpreted and that our diplomats will not be taken seriously either by our allies or our adversaries because nobody ever knows when what they say will be contradicted by the President in a Tweet, which his own White House has said represents official White House policy.
The reality, of course, is that whatever the United States ends up doing in Syria will amount to far less than what the President is threatening.
Whatever we do in Syria will amount to very little. In all likelihood, Syria has already moved most of its important assets to areas protected by Russia, this is most likely especially true of the heart of the Syrian Air Force. They are anticipating, correctly, that the U.S. isn’t going to strike at Russian or Iranian targets or targets that are likely to result in Russian or Iranian casualties. For rather obvious reasons, this would be a dumb move regardless of who the President of the United States is or how much backing we have from other nations in whatever may come over the coming days.
As I said yesterday, doing nothing is probably the best option but give the precedent we established last year that’s probably not a viable option at this point. While I’m not going to hazard a guess as to what will happen, my speculation is that we’ll probably get some kind of pointless demonstration strike that will make it seem like we’re sending a statement about Syrian chemical weapons use but which won’t amount to anything, and which certainly won’t do anything to turn the tide in a civil war that, by all accounts, the Assad regime seems to be winning. That being said, we cannot ignore the risks of escalation, and the President’s irresponsible and childish rants on Twitter are most certainly not helping the situation.