In response to allegations of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in the country’s ongoing civil war, President Trump has ordered a series of air strikes on Syrian targets in what could be an overture to regime change.
The strikes were carried out late Thursday night, hours after Russian deputy Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov warned of “negative consequences” if the administration chose to go through with prior threats. Though the Russians were informed of the strike in advance, this small gesture likely will not mitigate the damage done to US-Russian relations by the attack.
"We describe that attack as a flagrant violation of international law and an act of aggression," Safronkov said at an emergency session of the UN Security Council (UNSC) on Friday.
This takes place just one week after the Trump administration announced that it would no longer seek to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, claiming that the Obama administration missed the opportunity to do so. "There is a bit of political reality with respect to where we are now, and where we were in the last administration," Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at a briefing, adding that the US goal in Syria is now to defeat the Islamic State.
That didn’t last long, as we’re back again to the same mad scheme to overthrow the Syrian government. The prior administration flirted with the idea, but never fully it carried out – and for good reason. America’s recent record with regime change is dismal, with the violent consequences of the US-led regime changes in Iraq and Libya still grinding on today.
The Obama administration, of course, did for some time arm and train Syrian rebels in an effort to hasten Assad’s defeat, but never carried out a full-scale assault on the regime. This became especially difficult after direct Russian involvement began in the conflict in 2015, risking a confrontation between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.
At one particularly crucial moment in the summer of 2013, however, President Obama did precisely what Trump just failed to do: he waited.
After a chemical weapons attack on rebel-held areas in Ghouta, a suburb east of Damascus, a chorus of outrage erupted from all quarters of respectable society to demand action against Assad. Obama had set down a "red line" in a 2012 speech, one year to the day before the Ghouta attack, which warned Assad that the use of chemical or biological weapons would trigger direct US action in Syria. That ultimatum contributed to the pressure exerted on the president in the wake of the attack.
John Kerry, then Secretary of State, in a speech soon after the incident claimed absolute certainty of the Assad regime’s guilt. Kerry uttered the words "We know…" no less than 35 times in that speech–but he didn’t know! Later revelations would cast serious doubts on the Assad regime’s responsibility for the attack.
Carla del Ponte, a former Swiss attorney-general and member of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, told Swiss TV three months before the Ghouta attack that there were "strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof" that the rebels were responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria, specifically the use of sarin gas.
Sarin was also allegedly used in the recent April 4 chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhun which prompted US retaliation Thursday.
Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, in two pieces published in the London Review of Books, gives substantial evidence to suggest that the rebels carried out the Ghouta attack in order to cross Obama’s “red line” and trigger US intervention against Assad. First, the conclusions of American intelligence agencies:
"In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order – a planning document that precedes a ground invasion – citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity."
Hersh cites a high-level intelligence officer who said the attack "was not the result of the current regime" in Syria. Another former senior intelligence official said that the Obama administration actually altered information "to enable the president and his advisers to make intelligence retrieved days after the attack look as if it had been picked up and analyzed in real time."
A chemical weapons expert formerly of the Iraqi military, Ziyaad Tariq Ahmed, was also known by US intelligence to be affiliated with the al-Nusra Front rebel group and to be operating in Ghouta at the time, according to Hersh’s reporting. Tariq was regarded a high-profile target by the American military, and was suspected to be involved in the production of sarin.
Moreover, in spring of 2013, US intelligence learned that the Turkish government was working with al-Nusra, the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, to develop a chemical weapons capability.
"Stepping up Turkey’s role in spring 2013 was seen as the key to its problems there," another retired intelligence official told Hersh. "Erdoğan’s hope was to instigate an event that would force the US to cross the red line," the former official said, referring to a rebel chemical attack which would be blamed on the regime.
This would not be the first time Turkey would have considered covert intervention in Syria. In March of 2014 a leaked recording was publicized wherein high-level Turkish officials, including Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, are heard discussing an idea to stage an attack on the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, a shrine in Syria which by treaty is Turkish territory.
The staged attack would justify an escalation in Turkish involvement in the Syrian war. "We’re going to portray this [as] al-Qaeda,” Feridun Sinirlioğlu, a Turkish diplomat, said in the recordings (translation of the transcript). "There’s no distress there if it’s a matter regarding al-Qaeda. And if it comes to defending Suleiman Shah Tomb, that’s a matter of protecting our land."
While the Obama administration maintained Assad’s culpability in the Ghouta attack, instead of ordering military retaliation Obama struck a deal with Assad, brokered by the Russians, for Syria to hand over its entire chemical weapons stockpile. This was completed in the summer of 2014 to the satisfaction of the State Department. Until the April 4 gas attack, all indications were that Syria no longer possessed such weapons.
The former president’s decision not to bomb may have had something to do with the ultimately flimsy case against Assad for the Ghouta attack. Then director of national intelligence James Clapper once even interrupted the president’s daily intelligence briefing to tell him the Syria intel was "not a slam dunk" (a reference to George Tenet, CIA director under the Bush administration, who vouched for faulty intelligence in the lead up to the Iraq War).
Obama, despite his public claims to the contrary, at some point may have concluded he simply did not have the evidence that would justify full-scale military action in Syria.
President Trump is now asserting the same level of certainty regarding the recent chemical attack that was put forth by the Obama administration in 2013. "There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons," Trump said at a briefing after the incident.
We’ve heard this before – not only in relation to Syria – and in this case the administration barely waited 48 hours before launching a bombing raid in retaliation, hardly enough time to conduct a thorough investigation. By April 6, the United Nations was still finalizing the decision to even begin a probe into the attack.
While the perpetrator of the sarin strike is yet unknown, there are at least some plausible reasons to be skeptical about Assad’s responsibility.
Former CIA and DIA officer Phil Giraldi claims to have military and intelligence sources on the ground in Syria who tell him the Assad regime did not carry out the April 4 attack. "Apparently the intelligence on this is very clear," Giraldi told radio host Scott Horton in an interview. "People in both the [Central Intelligence] Agency and in the military who are aware of the intelligence are freaking out about this."
Giraldi’s sources say the Syrian military struck a cache of sarin gas controlled by the rebels in the town of Khan Sheikhun, an account also put forward by the Russians. "There was indeed an attack, but it was an attack with conventional weapons, with a bomb," Giraldi said.
Another strange aspect of this incident is its timing. Assad would seemingly have little incentive to carry out such an attack just as the US announced its intention to abandon plans for regime change. Some commentators have suggested Assad was "testing" the Trump administration with a provocative act, but this seems a reckless gamble from which little could be gained.
Overall, the war in Syria has been going well for Assad, raising additional questions about motive. What tactical or strategic benefit could the use of chemical agents have for the regime at this point?
Fortunately, some lawmakers are voicing skepticism toward the administration’s quick rush to judgment about the April 4 sarin attack, and some of Giraldi’s sources said they would like to come forward publicly with what they know, but that may not be enough to prevent further military action against the Syrian regime.
At Friday’s emergency UNSC session, Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said more strikes were still on the table. “We are prepared to do more, but we hope it will not be necessary,” Haley said. The Pentagon also said it was investigating the possibility of Russian complicity in the gas attack, ratcheting up tensions yet further.
In a dark irony, at least nine civilians, including children, were killed in Thursday’s attack, a barrage of nearly 60 Tomahawk missiles. It is a stark illustration of the futility of "humanitarian" intervention, where civilians must die for the sake of their own protection.
Welcome to the fifth term of the Bush administration; the swamp is here to stay.