Trump and His Generals Are Playing a Dangerous Game in Syria

Trump and His Generals Are Playing a Dangerous Game in Syria

Trump and His Generals Are Playing a Dangerous Game in Syria

The recent events in Syria represent a remarkable break from the policy candidate Trump campaigned on last year.


On Sunday, US troops shot down a Syrian fighter jet in the skies above southwest Syria. The United States, which is operating in Syria without the consent of the Syrian government, and therefore in flagrant violation of international law, released a statement claiming, incredibly, that the US-led coalition “does not seek to fight the Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them.”

In response, Russia immediately moved to suspend the deconfliction channel between the Russian and American armed forces. Further, the Russian Ministry of Defense warned that US and coalition aircraft “detected to the west of the Euphrates River will be tracked by the Russian SAM systems as air targets.”

The incident is but the latest in a series of recent attacks by US forces against pro-government forces in Syria.

As ABC News has reported: “Over the last four weeks, the US has conducted three air strikes on pro-regime forces backed by Iran that have moved into a deconfliction zone around the town of Tanf in southwestern Syria.”

The recent events in Syria represent a remarkable break from the policy candidate Donald Trump campaigned on last year, during which he repeatedly signaled his intention to work with Russia in the fight against ISIS in Syria.

And for this, it is worth recalling, he was roundly criticized by the US foreign-policy establishment. Critics such as Colin Kahl, a former Biden foreign-policy adviser, and Professor Hal Brands of Johns Hopkins-SAIS asserted that “cutting a bargain with Moscow to cooperate in the fight against the Islamic State would be a disaster for US security and influence.” According to Kahl and Brands, the “most likely beneficiaries of a US-Russia compact are the exact same extremist groups against which that partnership would ostensibly be directed.”

Yet candidate Trump had it right: It is in the US national interest to cooperate with Russia in the fight against ISIS in Syria. (I would go a step further and say it is in the US national interest also not to overthrow sovereign governments.)

But upon assuming office Trump quickly became prisoner of the foreign-policy orthodoxy he had once so vigorously derided.

The orthodoxy holds that it is Iran, not ISIS (and certainly not Saudi Arabian-funded jihadists), that is the primary obstacle to peace and stability in the region, and therefore the paramount goal of US Middle East policy should be to block Iranian influence at the expense of all else.

Not surprisingly, the national-security blog Just Security recently reported that two high-ranking Trump NSC officials are “pushing to broaden the war in Syria, viewing it as an opportunity to confront Iran and its proxy forces on the ground there.”

The American (and Israeli and Saudi) preoccupation with Iran is what lies behind the recent string of American attacks on Syrian forces in southwest Syria where Iran, Russia, and the US coalition forces are operating in close proximity. The Middle East Institute’s Randa Slim told Politico: “I have never seen so many international and regional conflicts playing out simultaneously in one military theater.”

Another part of the problem is that since taking office, Trump has ceded (and bragged about ceding) civilian control of the military to his generals. And so, in short order, this new, extra-constitutional arrangement has resulted in a bungled Seal team raid in Yemen, an escalation of troop levels in Afghanistan, and now this.

Preposterously, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, claims US military action against Syria is authorized by the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) which gave President Bush the authority to act “against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”

Clearly, the AUMF authorized the use of force only against Al Qaeda and its associated forces. And as things stand in Syria today, it is the Russians, Iranians, and Syrians (though, disturbingly, not the Americans) who are fighting those very forces.

In the context of last Sunday’s attack, it is then worth asking: Who are the Russian and Syrian forces attacking? ISIS and assorted Islamist jihadists set on overthrowing the sovereign Syrian government (though the Pentagon claims the downed Syrian jet attacked coalition forces fighting under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF).

Nevertheless, by shooting down a Syrian fighter jet the United States attacked a secular, multi-confessional state, Syria, that has never attacked the United States.

Do those who hold with the bipartisan Washington consensus that has repeatedly called for Assad’s ouster and criticizes Russia at every turn for defending him not see the problem here?

And if not, why not?

Meanwhile, all this is unfolding as NATO and Russian aircraft and fighter jets are circling one another in a second theater of the new cold war—in the skies above the Baltics. It was reported yesterday that an armed Russian fighter jet came within 5 feet of a US reconnaissance aircraft over the Baltic Sea.

In the end, those who have been so eager to escalate tensions with Russia for what is often recklessly alleged to be an “act of war” during the 2016 campaign just may get their wish.

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