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The Lessons of the West’s Incompetence in Syria

For all of President Trump’s bombastic threats, the actual attack made no effort to damage Assad’s grip on power or to tilt the balance in the civil war.

The recent allied attack against Syria was a deliberately crafted gesture which amounted to no more than a statement that the use of banned chemical weapons will have consequences. If he heard this, Assad will conclude that he may continue the bloody suppression of his people by the usual conventional means. No one will oppose that.

The April 14 strike by the United States, Great Britain and France was bigger and hit more targets than the similar airstrikes in retaliation for chemical weapon use last year. But it was a limited operation calculated to avoid any direct attack on Russian or Iranian positions — many of which are co-located with major Syrian targets. More that that, the allies told the Russian military in advance and in detail what they proposed to do in order to de-conflict and avoid any direct contact. The Russians certainly passed this information on to the Assad forces. For all of President Trump’s bombastic threats, the actual attack made no effort to damage Assad’s grip on power or to tilt the balance in the war.

The Syrian Civil War, with its roots in the Arab Spring and a disastrous drought that drove millions into the cities, has confounded the strategists in both Europe and the US. The chaos and brutality that has followed created a vacuum that ISIS and its jihadist allies exploited. The collapse of central government in turn contributed to the migration crisis which continues to rock European politics. The false starts, confused policies and reversals of tactics by the West in response to this challenge have been a disaster — not least to the people of Syria but to the whole Middle East – and a gift to the nativists of Europe.

The truth is that the West has been outwitted by the strategists in Moscow and Tehran who clearly identified their interests and have pursued them consistently. For Moscow, the objective has been to demonstrate the support to an ally who provides Russia with land and sea bases, but has been and will again be a good market for Russian military and civilian output. But much more than that, Russia has demonstrated to all the other Middle Eastern states that it is an ally on whom they can depend — unlike the vacillating, inconsistent and critical West. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are already paying close attention and engaging Russia with negotiations for arms sales and warmer political relations.

Iran has been the other winner. Its consistent support for both the Iraqi and Syrian governments in their fights against insurgents has given them not only enormous political influence, but also a string of military bases extending through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. We are witnessing the growth of an Iranian empire. None of these developments were initiated by Iran — the sparks that ignited the flames were the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring. But the Iranians are taking full advantage of the opportunities that have come their way.

The strategists in Washington, now led by the new and aggressive National Security Advisor John Bolton, are preparing a fight back. Strongly encouraged by the Israelis, the Saudis and the Emiratis, the US is preparing a counterattack to try to roll back Iranian influence. This will start with the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the re-imposition of US sanctions. But we should also expect a sharp escalation of covert operations and low intensity warfare conducted by drones and special or proxy forces. This will be designed to make it too costly for Iranian forces to remain in Syria and Iraq and to force the Iranians to make further concessions, such as discontinuing its long-range missile program.

However, if the lessons of the West’s incompetence in Syria is any guide the Iranians will likely profit from this new confrontation. Tehran and Moscow too have assets they can deploy, and the most powerful of these is that they are reliable as allies but dangerous as opponents. A political accommodation and a new balance of power is what they will seek. The only country in the region that will not be seduced by this argument is Israel. The others will all be making their own calculations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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