Trump’s Syria policy is dangerous, ambiguous

lawrence sellin

Every national security decision should be made without emotion and based on probability and proportionality.

That is, what is the probability that a particular course of action will have the desired result within a reasonable time frame and with a limited expenditure of lives and money and is that effort proportional when compared to other national security needs?

For example, President Donald Trump has now decided keep U.S. troops in Syria to complete the mission — as the Pentagon describes — “to render ISIS unable to generate successful attacks against the homeland of the United States or against our allies.”

That goal is similar to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan to defeat or force the Taliban to the negotiating table to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a launch pad for attacks against the United States and its allies.

It seems to me that the same forces are at work in Syria and the surrounding region that has kept us in Afghanistan for nearly 17 years. You may recall that we “defeated” the Taliban in 2001 and 2002.

Please tell me we are not going to be in Syria for 17 years.

After the president recently announced a withdrawal, the decision to maintain a U.S. military presence in Syria for an undetermined period was no doubt bolstered by the Department of Defense assertion that “the Syrian regime killed at least 45 people and sickened hundreds of others in a chemical weapons attack on Douma, Syria, April 7.”

According to the White House’s own report, the decision to blame the Syrian government for the reported chemical casualties in Douma and launch a missile strike on Syria appeared to be based nearly entirely on “descriptions of the attack in multiple media sources, the reported symptoms experienced by victims, videos and images.” Some of those sources are associated with Syrian opposition groups.

Objectively, if someone were to assess blame based on that type of unsubstantiated evidence, the probability of accuracy would be in the range of 50 percent. It may be proven that the Syrian government was responsible, but that was not clear when the attack was launched.

Without proper and timely diagnostic procedures and forensic analysis, it is not possible to determine unequivocally whether a chemical attack took place or to determine the agents used. It may now be too late for an independent authority to obtain a complete assessment of a crime scene that is over a week old with the contamination of physical evidence.

It is true that the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad has been repeatedly accused of using chemical weapons and, if past behavior is any indication, there is a likelihood of Syrian government culpability. Nevertheless, the Syrian rebels are also known to possess chemical weapons. The Islamist group accusing Assad of using chemical weapons in Douma, Jaish al-Islam, itself reportedly used chemical weapons against the Kurds in April 2016.

Something that has not been widely reported was the March 27th mass execution of 120 Syrian soldiers captured by ISIS-affiliated rebel forces in the Damascus area during a ceasefire to which the rebels had agreed.

The Trump administration described Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a “monster.”

Frankly, I am having trouble distinguishing among the several monsters.

Based on the number of cruise missiles employed, the likely cost to U.S. taxpayers for the well-executed April 13 surgical strike would be between $100 and $200 million for the destruction of nine buildings and a bunker related to Syrian government’s chemical weapons capability.

Questions remain.

Does the Syrian government retain a chemical weapons capability? Yes.

Will this attack change the course of the Syrian civil war? No.

Will this attack deter the Syrian government from using chemical weapons in the future? Maybe.

Will this attack deter the Syrian rebels from using chemical weapons in the future? Maybe not.

Does this attack contribute to the official U.S. mission in Syria to defeat ISIS? No.

Any finally, would resources expended in places like Syria be better used solving problems at home, for example, securing our borders? The 2016 election said “yes.”

Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He is trained in Arabic and Kurdish. He receives email at lawrence.sellin@gmail.com.