In Syria, our betrayal is complete

American armored vehicles in Syrian Kurdistan. (Credit: AFP)

Last night, to the surprise of both the Department of Defense and State Department, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw its military forces from northern Syria, opening the door for neighboring Turkey to stage the invasion of the region it has yearned for.

Turkey’s target: The Kurdish militias that have been our staunchest allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria. This completes the American betrayal of our allies there.

First, in June 2017, Trump killed the program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels who had been battling both ISIS and the brutal government of Bashar Assad. This was an outcome long desired by Russian president and Trump patron Vladimir Putin, who is deeply invested in seeing his client Assad retain power. I wrote then:

For their part, Syria’s moderate rebels were understandably taken by surprise. Even if the effectiveness of US support had been swamped by the efforts of Russia (and Iran) to militarily prop up the Assad regime, the rebels still didn’t expect to be so unceremoniously hung out to dry:

“The program played an important role in organizing and supporting the rebels,” said Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saud, who commands the Division 13 rebel group in Idlib province.

He said that “this won’t affect our fight against the regime, the Islamic State or Nusra,” which is the former name of Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. But he also expressed disbelief that the United States would end its support.

“I don’t think this is going to happen,” he said. “America is a superpower. It won’t just retreat like that.”

And now the Kurds get to experience what happens when America abandons its proxies. Perhaps they should ask the Montagnards or Brigade 2506 how things turn out.

Trump hands Assad (and Putin) a win in Syria

Trump-Putin-Assad-678x381

In case you’ve forgotten, there’s still a brutal civil war raging in Syria. And a couple of days ago, President Trump handed Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, and his Russian patron Vladimir Putin, a sweet little gift.

Trump administration officials acknowledged Wednesday that a covert program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels would be discontinued. The program was put in place in 2013 by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, and while its effectiveness has been in question, Putin, in particular, has long sought to see the initiative killed.

Trump delivered.

That helps Assad, and by extension, helps Putin. As I’ve written before, the Russian president has a deep interest in seeing the Assad regime retain power, and has been willing to facilitate or commit all manner of war crimes and civilian atrocities to see that through.

Back in October 2015, right after Russian warplanes began flying combat missions in Syria, I argued that Putin’s tactic of targeting air strikes against anti-Assad rebels, especially those backed by the United States, while scrupulously avoiding hitting Islamic State targets, reflected a strategy of clearing the field so that the rest of the world would have to choose between a Syria controlled by Assad, or one dominated by ISIS.

This strategy scored a major victory in December 2016, when Syrian government forces, supported by indiscriminate bombing by Russian warplanes, succeeded in retaking the city of Aleppo from the same moderate rebels backed by the United States, Turkey, and other outside powers opposed to both Assad and ISIS.

And now, by killing the US program to arm and train these moderate forces, President Trump has delivered yet another victory to Assad and Putin.

This was all fairly predictable. Recall that just a month after Trump was elected, Assad in an interview with Syrian state television, referred to him as his “natural ally”:

Trump’s statements were clear during his campaign in relation to fighting terrorism, non-intervention against states in order to depose governments, as the United States has been doing for decades. This is good, but this depends on Trump’s will to carry on with this approach, and his ability to do that. We know that there are powerful lobbies in the United States which stood against Trump and they will exert their utmost pressure, when he is in office, to push him towards retracting what he said in this area and in other areas as well. Otherwise, he will have a confrontation with these lobbies in the Congress, in the Senate, in the media, and in the industrial lobbies which gain from wars, like what happened in Iraq and Yemen recently. That’s why if Trump was able to overcome all these obstacles and really act against terrorism, I believe that he will be our natural ally.

For their part, Syria’s moderate rebels were understandably taken by surprise. Even if the effectiveness of US support had been swamped by the efforts of Russia (and Iran) to militarily prop up the Assad regime, the rebels still didn’t expect to be so unceremoniously hung out to dry:

“The program played an important role in organizing and supporting the rebels,” said Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saud, who commands the Division 13 rebel group in Idlib province.

He said that “this won’t affect our fight against the regime, the Islamic State or Nusra,” which is the former name of Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. But he also expressed disbelief that the United States would end its support.

“I don’t think this is going to happen,” he said. “America is a superpower. It won’t just retreat like that.”

Oh yeah? Watch us.

Spicer, Hitler, and sarin

Note the chyron.
Note the chyron.

 

Insensitive. Incoherent. Blundering. Tone deaf. Morally incomprehensible. Historically illiterate.

All of these are ways we can describe White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s comments Tuesday in which he declared Syrian Pres. Bashar Assad actions worse than Hitler since:

You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.

s604x0_HitlerwarnSpicer has been pilloried, and rightly so, for apparently forgetting that Hitler was more than happy to use chemical weapons, just to exterminate concentrate camp (which Spicer stumblingly referred to as “Holocaust centers”) inmates in the millions.

But here’s another inconvenient historical truth that Spicer clearly didn’t know but that deserves highlighting: Sarin gas, the nerve agent dropped by Assad’s forces on a rebel-held town in Idlib Province, was first developed in 1938 by German scientists working for the chemical giant IG Farben.

As historian Richard Evans notes in the final volume of his magisterial trilogy on the rise and ultimate defeat of the Third Reich, the compound was named in honor of its discoverers: Schrader, Ambros, Ritter, and von der Linde. In mid-1939 the formula for sarin was turned over to the chemical warfare section of the Wehrmacht’s weapons office, which ordered mass production for wartime use.

While it is true that Hitler never ordered the use of chemical weapons against the Allies on the Western Front (chemical agents, though not nerve gas, was used in several battles against Soviet forces on the Eastern Front), sarin and other nerve gases were manufactured at factories which used concentration camp prisoners as slave laborers. Prisoners were also used to test the effectiveness of the agents.

Otto Ambros, one of the developers of sarin, went on to become the Nazis’ chief chemical weapons expert. He was convicted at the Nuremberg tribunals for experimenting on concentration camp inmates and overseeing one of the factories at the Auschwitz complex.

He was sentenced to eight years in prison. After his release from prison in 1952 he worked as a consultant for several American chemical companies, including R.W. Grace and Dow Chemical.

Oh yeah. He also consulted for the U.S. Army Chemical Corps.

Signals matter

Victim of Syrian gas attack/Hindustan Times photo
Victim of Syrian gas attack/Hindustan Times photo

 

On Tuesday the Syrian government gassed its own citizens, dropping nerve agent on a rebel-held town in Idlib Province. The death toll is still being figured, but dozens, including many children, are among the casualties.

Four days earlier, on Friday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said this, in response to a question as to whether the Trump administration considered Bashar Assad the legitimate president of Syria:

Well, I think with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now.

When pressed about what the Trump administration sees as the endgame for Assad in Syria, and reminded that Assad is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Spicer had this to say:

 I think we believe there’s a need to deescalate violence and to have a political process through which Syrians will decide their own political future consistent with the principles that have been enshrined in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254.  But there’s a bit of — as I mentioned just a second ago, there’s a bit of reality on the ground in terms of what the options are.

The day before, on Thursday, discussing Trump administration policy toward Syria, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told reporters:

You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.

Fast forward to yesterday and the horrific images of dead children and crippled survivors gasping feebly for breath, all the victims of the Assad regime’s brutality.

In response, the President Trump blamed … Barack Obama.

Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.

It’s true. In 2012 President Obama threatened a US military response to any use of chemical weapons by Syria. Assad called his bluff and Obama backed down. Of course in 2013 Trump himself said that was the right call.

To claim five years later that Obama’s failure in 2012 is why Assad dropped nerve agent on his own people yesterday, is simply absurd.

Far more likely is Assad’s calculation, based on the Trump administration’s own statements, that the United States will turn a blind eye to whatever new atrocity the Syrian regime decides to unleash in order to cling to power.  To no one’s surprise, Trump’s statement makes no mention of any new action in response to the chemical weapons attack.

Obama may have drawn a red line, but the Trump administration gave the green light. As I wrote back in December, Bashar Assad had high hopes for the incoming Trump administration, telling an interviewer from Syrian state television, “I believe that he will be our natural ally.” Looks like those hopes were well placed.