Down on Syria
By Bret Stephens
New York Times
April 12, 2018
On Saturday I took my family to have a closer look at
This was on the Golan Heights, from a roadside promontory
overlooking the abandoned Syrian town of Quneitra. The border is very green at
this time of year, a serene patchwork of orchards and grassland, and it was hard
to impress on our kids that hell on earth was visible in the quiet distance.
But I wanted them to see it ó to know that Syria is a
place, not an abstraction; that the agonies of its people are near, not far;
that we should not look away. Later that day, in a suburb of Damascus, Syrian
forces apparently again gassed their own people.
Itís fortunate for Israel that it did not bargain the
Heights away during the ill-fated peace processes of the 1990s: Had it done so,
ISIS, Hezbollah or Iran might in time have trained their guns on Israeli towns
below. The strategy of withdrawal-for-peace has not been vindicated in recent
years, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or Gaza. Itís a point Donald Trump
obviously missed when he insisted last week on U.S. withdrawal from Syria,
likely encouraging the apparent chemical attack he now threatens to punish.
As it is, the chances of a wider and bloodier war over
Syria have grown in recent days. Syrian tanks and artillery have reportedly entered
the demilitarized buffer zone near the Israeli border, in brazen
violation of the 1974 disengagement agreement, as they prepare to sweep rebel
forces from the rest of the border area. Israel did very little to deny its
attack Monday on an air
base used by Iran in central Syria, and Jerusalem is threatening more
aggressive steps to keep Tehran from further entrenching itself militarily in
its client state. The Iranians have vowed
retaliation for the attack, which they are sure to make good on,
probably via their proxies in Hezbollah. And tensions between Israel and Russia
their highest point since the Cold War, in part because Israel did not
notify Russia in advance of Mondayís attack.
So where is the United States in all of this?
As Michael Doran pointed out in an
astute Times op-ed on Tuesday, Trump seems to have violated his own
ostensible rules for winning in recent days. First he promised to withdraw U.S.
forces, which would eliminate what little military leverage we have with Syria
(and Turkey), and then he telegraphed the kind of feckless missile strike he
seems intent on carrying out sometime in the coming hours or days.
But the truth about current U.S. policy is worse. For
starters, there is no policy: The president and his commanding general in the
Middle East, Joseph Votel, have offered flatly contradictory
statements about what the U.S. intends to do in Syria. We long ago pulled
the plug on supporting relatively moderate Syrian rebels fighting
Bashar al-Assad. And the absence of policy itself runs counter to what is
supposed to be Trumpís overarching goal of blunting Iranís regional
ambitions and forcing a renegotiation of the nuclear deal.
To adapt Churchillís line about Russia, Trumpís
approach to Syria is an impulse wrapped in indifference inside an incoherence.
It makes Barack Obamaís failed Syria policy look savvy, since at least the
former presidentís reluctance to get involved was consonant with his
overarching desire to improve relations with Tehran.
A limited missile strike that slightly degrades Assadís
military capabilities will change none of this, just as last yearís U.S.
strike changed nothing. What could work? In a column I wrote for The Wall Street
Journal in 2013, I
argued that the U.S. should target Assad and his senior lieutenants
directly in a decapitation strike, just as the U.S. attempted in Iraq in 2003,
and against Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Nothing that has happened in the intervening five years has
changed my view about this. If we are serious about restoring an international
norm against the use of chemical weapons, then the penalty for violating the
norm must be severe. And if we are serious about confronting Iran, Syria remains
the most important battlefield. An extended U.S. air campaign to destroy
Tehranís military assets in the country would send the message that we will
not tolerate its attempt to colonize Syria and threaten its neighbors. It could
also help avert the looming war on Israelís north and persuade Russia that its
adventure in Syria wonít pay long-term results, especially if Assad is gone.
None of this will solve Syriaís problems. But it can begin to solve the problems Syria has caused for us ó as a violator of moral norms, a threat to our regional allies, and an opportunity for our most dedicated enemies. Thereís a new national security adviser in the White House, and a final chance for American initiative in this devastated land.