The declaration by the White House that Bashar al-Assad was preparing to carry out another chemical attack and that Syria’s President would “pay a heavy price” if this took place appears to have caught the US military and State Department somewhat by surprise.
It was certainly a highly unusual move. Such statements are rarely made in public, with warnings normally passed on privately through diplomatic channels. Russia, President Assad’s ally, would have been the obvious conduit for this. But instead the Trump administration went on to raise the ante with Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the UN, charging that a chemical attack “will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia and Iran who support him in killing his own people”.
Accusations and recriminations from the Trump team have been rising steadily over Syria. The belligerence has not been confined just to rhetoric. In just over a month the US has shot down a regime jet as well as two Iranian-supplied drones. At the same time American warplanes have bombed regime forces on no less than four occasions.
All this comes after Trump approved a military strike in April against the regime following a Sarin gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun with 59 Tomahawk missiles launched from two destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean. The assault was in marked contrast to the path taken by Barack Obama, who failed to take military action despite the Syrian regime crossing his “red line” with a chemical attack on Ghouta in 2013.
There were initial views that the more aggressive posture was due to the US military being given a freer rein by the new President. But what is actually at play, it seems, is the result of the contradictions and internal schisms that have marked the Trump administration.
No evidence has been presented by the US so far that the Assad regime is about to use to chemical weapons. It would, necessarily, be intelligence based, but Brian Hale, spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence, referred questions on the matter to the White House, where spokesman Marc Raimondi would only say: “We are letting the statement speak for itself.” The US Central Command, in charge of Middle East operations, stated: “For this matter, we have no information to add to what has already been stated.”
Further military strikes against the Syrian regime by the US is likely to pave the way for direct confrontation and clashes on the ground. But the real target may in fact not be President Assad, but Iran, a country Trump had repeatedly pledged to confront while running for the White House.
Days after last month’s election in Iran, in which the reformist President Hassan Rouhani won a resounding victory, Trump, on an arms-selling trip to Saudi Arabia, was accusing Tehran of exporting terrorism. He went on to call for an alliance of Israel, which sees Iran as an existential threat, with the Sunni Gulf states against Iran.
When that Sunni bloc began to fracture with a Saudi-led group turning on Qatar – one of the main complaints being that Doha had maintained good relations with Iran – Trump tweeted attacks on Qatar. This put him at odds with his own State Department, which had criticised the Saudis for making unreasonable demands on Qatar. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had sought to mediate in the dispute, found himself being undermined. Asked about his reaction to this, Tillerson was reduced to saying: “I am not involved in how the President constructs his tweets, when he tweets, why he tweets, what he tweets.”
But it was not just Trump causing problems for the Secretary of State. Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and adviser, and Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, who have been fighting their own turf war against each other, joined forces to argue that the US should take the side of the Saudi-led coalition against Qatar.
It is against this background of infighting that the Trump administration’s Syria policy is evolving, with a faction that sees the civil war as an opportunity to combat Iranian influence. Among the most vocal advocates of this policy are two officials, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council, and Derek Harvey, an adviser on the Middle East on the Council.
Cohen-Watnick, according to The New York Times, told administration officials that he wanted the US intelligence agencies to bring down the Iranian government. Harvey had attempted to get “Obama holdovers” dismissed from the National Security Council because they were too cautious on Syria. A White House source told The Washington Post: “Trump administration officials are planning for the next stage of the war, a complex fight that will bring them into direct conflict with the Syrian government and Iranian forces contesting control of a vast desert stretch in the eastern part of the country.”
The activities of this group has alarmed senior figures in the US military including Gen James Mattis, the Defence Secretary, and Lt Gen HR McMaster, the President’s National Security Adviser. Both are considered to be hawks on Iran, but neither they nor Gen Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, want another front in the war against Iran and its allied Shia militias. The US mission in Syria, they have insisted, should focus on the reason it was set up – to fight Isis.
Lt Gen McMaster had attempted to move Cohen-Watnick to another job within the National Security Council. But he failed, according to reports, after Cohen-Watnick appealed to Bannon and Kushner to intercede with Trump to save his job. The general has so far resisted, however, Harvey’s efforts, with the help of Bannon, to dismiss the “Obama holdovers”.
It was a sign of his concern at the way things are going that Gen Mattis has tried to play down talk of a US military strike on the regime. “We just refuse to get drawn into a fight in the Syrian civil war, we try to end that one through diplomatic engagement,” he said. “If somebody comes after us, bombs us or takes a heading on us, then under legitimate self-defence we’ll do whatever we have to do to stop it.” He added: “The US will not fire unless they are the enemy, unless they are Isis.”
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was protesting: “I am not aware of any information or threat of using chemical weapons. We also consider any similar threat to the leadership of the Syrian Arab Republic unacceptable.” To Franz Klintsevich, deputy head of the parliamentary defence committee in Moscow: “It is clear, what we are seeing is that a cynical and unprecedented provocation is under way.”
Russia has stated that it is tracking Western warplanes in the Syrian skies and that it has supplied the Syrian regime with advanced anti-aircraft weapons and will back its use “against aggression”. The noises coming from Washington may be a warning to the Assad regime based on genuine intelligence, or, as many believe, it is a gambit to engineer a confrontation with Iran. But what unfolds next may well make an already volatile and violent arena even more dangerous.
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