“I really believe that we should have and still should take out his airfields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them.”
Those were Hillary Clinton’s words just hours before her nemesis, President Donald Trump, ordered air strikes launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat airfield in the southeast of Homs, Syria.
The Trump administration described the strikes as a “one-off” and insisted there were no plans for escalation. But an escalation is rapidly underway. Russia, despite being given advanced warning of the bombing from the US, has suspended an agreement with the US to avoid mid-air collisions in Syrian airspace.
The US government’s goals for the Syria strike can be deduced from the background role of one the most powerful diplomats in American history: Henry Kissinger. The former secretary of state, once accused by the late Christopher Hitchens of complicity in US “war crimes” in Latin America and south-east Asia, has been a key advisor to Trump in negotiating US relations with Russia and China.
Kissinger was previously a secret national security consultant to President George W Bush, and under Obama was directly involved in the US National Security Council’s chain-of-command. He also frequently advised Hillary Clinton during her term as secretary of state.
His influence in the Trump administration is also visible through his former acolyte, KT McFarland, who is now Trump’s deputy national security advisor, and who previously served under Kissinger in the 1970s in his National Security Council.
Chaos as strategy?
The sudden Syria air strikes fit into the philosophy of “unpredictability” - or Madman Theory - that Kissinger has long argued is a hallmark of the greatest statesmen. Kissinger’s approach is for US administrations to avoid the recommended caution of experts, instead opting for “the constant redefinition of goals” and “the strength to contemplate chaos”.
By behaving erratically, and even seemingly “irrationally”, US leaders can outmanoeuvre their opponents and rivals, and put them permanently on the backfoot in fear of the dangerous volatility of American power.
This is why Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was able to move from claiming that “steps are underway” to remove Bashar al-Assad from power, to now insisting that the US is not planning further actions.
“I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today,” he said.
The upshot appears to be: this was a one-off strike designed to send a clear message to US rivals, that the US is able and willing to deploy military power without fear of consequences. And that past commitments to Assad are no guarantee.
The deeper goal is to clear the ground for the Trump administration to pursue its strategic ambitions in Syria. Those ambitions can be gleaned from the thinking of its key advisors.
"We're seeing an administration making decisions on the basis of competing ideologies, one of which naively sees the escalation of chaos in countries like Syria as a strategic opportunity."
Before he resigned in disgrace over allegations of dishonesty regarding his contact with the Russian ambassador, Trump’s national security advisor Michael Flynn had just co-authored a book, The Field of Fight, with neoconservative defence consultant Michael Ledeen.
The significance of this is that Ledeen was directly involved with the Yellowcake forgeries attempting to fabricate a weapons of mass destruction threat to justify the 2003 Iraq War; has long campaigned for military interventions in Syria, Iran and beyond; and has articulated a foreign policy vision that was deeply influential in the George W Bush administration.
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Ledeen’s vision for the region can be summed up with his endorsement of the "cauldronisation" of the Middle East in 2002, when he wrote in support of invading Iraq: “One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please. If ever there were a region that richly deserved being cauldronised, it is the Middle East today.”
This sort of vision correlates with the Trump administration’s preference for chaos, backtracking and constant shifting of priorities. To be sure, much of this can also be attributed to real confusion and overwhelming incompetence. No one should underestimate that.
But simultaneously, we’re seeing an administration making decisions on the basis of competing ideologies, one of which naively sees the escalation of chaos in countries like Syria as a strategic opportunity.
Assad is not being removed
It would seem, though, that the strategic purpose of the strikes is not, ultimately, to begin the removal of Assad. Syrian rebels - some of whom have fought alongside al-Qaeda, some of whom vehemently oppose both IS and al-Qaeda, and many of whom nevertheless want to replace Assad’s regime with their own type of Islamic state - have welcomed the strikes.
But they also rightly point out that simply hitting one airbase achieves little, given that Assad launches domestic air strikes from at least 26 airbases.
A hint at what is really at stake comes from talks that have gone on between the Netanyahu and Trump administration during the last few weeks before the strikes. For Israel, the real "red line" in Syria is not about chemical weapons – it’s about Iran and Hezbollah’s potential encroachment, through Assad’s regime, on the Syrian-Israel border in the Golan Heights, or the Syrian-Jordanian border.
Sources familiar with the talks told Ha’aretz that Netanyahu wants “buffer zones” established on the Syrian side of the border. The plan also would entail that Syria’s Golan Heights be de facto partitioned off from Syria to Israel.
It so happens that the Israeli subsidiary of a US energy company, Genie Oil & Gas, is currently drilling for oil in the Golan Heights under a license from Netanyahu’s government. Among Genie’s equity-holding board members are Rupert Murdoch, who has astonishingly intimate ties with the Trump family, business empire, and administration.
Playing with fire
This vision does not see Assad’s removal as the answer, but seeks merely to limit his territorial power to a small enclave concentrated in Damascus, and further to break-off the scope of Russian and Iranian support for his regime. Simultaneously, the Trump regime wants to use the Syria strikes as the first step in a strategy to enforce a wedge between Russia and Iran.
"The Kissinger-esque tactic of 'playing with fire' to get what you want doesn’t work. Instead, it tends to make things spiral out of control."
By gifting to Russia the Crimea in one theatre, Trump’s government wants to convince Russia in a different theatre to back off its alliance with Iran in Syria, allowing the US a greater playing field to impose a diplomatic settlement that suits its own dubious geopolitical goals for the region.
The end result of this, though, is to maintain a state of permanent instability in Syria, where no particular faction wins: the US is at once tolerating Assad, threatening regime change, selectively targeting his regime but not taking actions that would actually remove him; allowing Gulf allies to continue supporting Syrian rebels of their choice, ranging from secular groups to Islamist militants, some with connections to IS and al-Qaeda; and carrying out air strikes on IS.
US actions to date will neither defeat IS, nor Assad. Instead, they will prolong the war, while attempting to contain it: an approach that is destined to defeat itself.
The problem is that the Kissinger-esque tactic of "playing with fire" to get what you want doesn’t work. Instead, it tends to make things spiral out of control.