Tag: Syria

Does the White House Have a Syria Strategy?

With the news that the United States has for the second time attacked targets linked to Syria’s Assad regime—in this case a convoy near Western forces in Al Tanf—concerned observers may be worrying that the Trump administration has chosen to make a major change in its Syria strategy. Fear not! As Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters:

“We’re not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war, but we will defend our troops. And that is a coalition element made up of more than just U.S. troops…”

Instead, you should probably just fear the fact that the United States no longer seems to have a Syria strategy.

Certainly, the Obama administration’s strategy towards Syria was inconsistent and vague. From the President’s statements early in the Syrian uprising that “Assad must go,” to his infamous red line comment, the Syrian chemical weapons deal, and the decision to intervene against ISIS, it often seemed as though the Obama administration was unsure whether it was willing to accept the Assad regime as part of a Syrian transition or not.

Nonetheless, throughout Obama’s term, the United States took no direct military action against Assad, and—other than arming a small number of rebels early in the conflict—largely ignored the question of Assad’s future, focusing instead on the campaign against ISIS.

With his disinterest in human rights, and his willingness to cooperate with Russia, the Trump administration was initially expected to be more conciliatory towards Assad than Obama. Yet only days after senior U.S. officials publicly stated that the U.S. priority was not to remove Assad, the President fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base.

Yesterday’s attack marks the second such incident. That they don’t constitute an official policy change is in large part because they were apparently authorized by commanders in the field, reflecting Trump’s desire to delegate key military decisionmaking down the chain of command.

Yet in many ways, this highlights the dangers of such delegation: though the strikes may have been necessary to protect American and British Special Forces based near al-Tanf, they carry risks of retaliation for U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq, as well as the potential for escalation with Syrian regime forces, Iranian-backed militias, or even Russian forces.

Targeting decisions like this, made at the tactical level, are thus deeply worrying. As ISIS continues to decline, military advances will bring both sides closer, raising the potential for conflict that could drag the United States deeper into the Syrian quagmire.

Unfortunately, lack of clarity about the Assad regime and allied forces is only one of the important questions that the Trump administration has so far failed to address in Syria. Though the headlines largely focused on the disgraceful behavior of Turkish President Erdogun’s bodyguards in beating up protestors, his D.C. visit last week also yielded no apparent progress on the brewing Turkish-Kurdish conflict in Northern Syria.

Indeed, the Trump administration recently took the decision to directly arm Syria’s Kurdish rebels, one of the most effective forces against ISIS. This was probably the right decision, but strains relations with Turkey, our NATO ally, which considers these groups as terrorists, and is engaged in bombing them.

At the same time, Trump appears to look more favorably on Russian plans for resolving and ending the Syrian conflict than his predecessor, but has taken an openly hostile attitude towards Iran, one of the other signatories of the de-escalation plan, and a major player on the ground in Syria. These two positions cannot be easily reconciled.

Thanks to a recent boost under the new administration, there are now at least a thousand U.S. troops in Syria training and working with ground forces fighting ISIS. It is these troops—and the larger number of U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq—who are most placed at risk by the new administration’s incoherent approach to Syria.

Whether or not the White House realizes it yet, tactical decisions like the one made yesterday by commanders on the ground in Syria risk dragging the United States even further into this complex war. The only way they can avoid it? Develop a coherent Syria strategy. 

Takeaways from Trump’s First 100 Days

For foreign policy wonks, Trump’s first hundred days have been a bit like a roller coaster ride. In just over three months, the new administration has veered from one crisis to another, from Syria to North Korea, China to Canada. Sudden Trumpian reversals on various foreign policy issues have been sharp enough to produce whiplash. Meanwhile, a dizzying barrage of strange foreign policy choices and statements makes it difficult to guess what’s coming next.

Nevertheless, amid all the confusion, there are a couple of big takeaways from these first 100 days that may help us better understand where Trump’s foreign policy approach is headed:

1. There really is no such thing as the Trump Doctrine

Trump’s reversals on issues like NATO have been hailed by some as bringing him closer to a “normal” presidency. Indeed, it is not always obvious from a President’s campaign what his broad foreign policy approach will end up being, or the obstacles and inertia that he will face in trying to alter American foreign policy. Yet even by these standards, Trump’s approach to the world remains unclear. A recent attempt by White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus to outline what he sees as the Trump Doctrine merely adds to this confusion:

Trump is “reshaping our position in the world,” Priebus said, and “really establishing, I think, a Trump Doctrine in setting some certain lines of where we’re not going to allow people like [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] to go, but at the same time making it clear that we’re not interested in long-term, you know, ground wars in the Middle East, but obviously focusing in on ISIS and what we’re doing in the Middle East to protect us here in the United States, working with China on ongoing issues with North Korea that are very real and are serious issues that takes cooperation within the region to handle appropriately.”

Another official “added that Trump’s status as ‘an incredible negotiator’ is also central to the doctrine.” As these statements suggest, Trump’s foreign policy so far has been highly reactive – responding to crises – but with no indication of an overarching strategy. 

2. Trump is escalating the War on Terror

Though the most visible indicator of this escalation was the use of a MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb), affectionately known as the ‘Mother of all Bombs,’ in Afghanistan, the new administration has chosen to escalate conflicts in a number of countries. More troops are being sent to the greater Middle East, in particular to join the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and U.S. Special Operations Forces are now engaging in ground actions against Al Qaeda in Yemen.

The administration has also loosened the rules of engagement in Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere, and has increased the number of bombing raids and drone strikes. According to at least one watchdog group, Trump’s choice to give his generals a free hand in these conflicts has resulted in a massive increase in civilian casualties in these areas.

3. Brinksmanship may be back  

The new president appears to have a gift for raising tensions around the world. Though his administration did certify that Iran is complying with the Obama-era nuclear deal, they also announced a 90-day review of the deal. Various officials are using increasingly tough rhetoric towards Iran. The administration has also indicated that it intends to step up support for the GCC campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, a group often described as an Iranian proxy.

Trump is also taking an increasingly hard line towards North Korea, with Vice President Mike Pence warning the DPRK that “all options are on the table” in the case of further missile or nuclear tests. Tensions around the peninsula are high, with joint U.S.-South Korean drills, and a North Korean live fire exercise taking place this week. Whether the new administration’s statements are accurate indicators of their position, or merely heated rhetoric, such statements can easily raise the potential for conflict.

4. Advisors really matter

Political science research has shown that even experienced advisors cannot substitute for an inexperienced president. Unfortunately, Trump is anything but experienced on foreign policy. And while some of his appointments have been reassuringly experienced (such as James Mattis, now Secretary of Defense), others are either inexperienced (such as Jared Kushner) or have disturbing worldviews (i.e., Steve Bannon).

Infighting between advisors inside the administration has been notable during these first hundred days, and Trump’s policies seem to vary depending on which individuals he is listening to on any given day. If you are interested in the internal dynamics of the Trump administration, you can check out my recent article at War on the Rocks, which explores the civil war in the White House. The Cliffs Notes version? Advisors really matter, and it’s still unclear which faction – if any – will triumph in the struggle for influence between Trump’s teams of rivals.

5. Competence is key

Some of Trump’s foreign policy decisions appear to be trending closer to a traditionally hawkish Republican line, while some of the problems that he faces – such as Turkish-Kurdish tensions in Northern Syria, or the intractable conflict in Afghanistan – have been around for far longer than this administration. Yet it is worth noting that the new administration’s response to various crises has often been less than competent. Some of this is the result of inexperience and a lack of appointed officials in key positions at the Departments of State and Defense, but others are self-inflicted wounds. The administration’s immigration bans and TPP withdrawal are cases in point.

Other foreign policy incidents have been frankly bizarre. Trump’s first National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, was forced to resign after only 25 days for misleading the administration on his lobbying and ties to Turkey and Russia. In an oval office meeting, Trump refused to shake Angela Merkel’s hand, later claiming that he didn’t hear the request. He phoned Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogun to congratulate him on a questionable referendum victory that consolidated his dictatorial power. Moreover, the administration misplaced an aircraft carrier, announcing that the USS Carl Vinson was heading for the Korean Peninsula as a show of force, when in fact, it was near Australia, moving in the other direction.

Taken alone, these incidents are concerning. But when considered in the broader context of Trump’s tendency to bluster and saber-rattle, his support for escalating the war on terror, and his inability to articulate any coherent strategy for U.S. foreign policy, they raise even bigger questions. If Trump’s first hundred days are truly representative of his foreign policy approach, it’s going to be a bumpy four years.

Weak Legal Pretext for Trump’s Drive-By Tomahawking

I’m beginning to understand why Cato’s Michael Cannon is frequently found tearing his hair out over Politifact, the Tampa Bay Times project ostensibly devoted to “sorting out the truth in politics.” When I look at how badly they’ve botched issues involving constitutional war powers, I feel his pain.

On Friday, the fact-checking organization weighed in on the legal debate over President Trump’s April 6 bombing of a Syrian airfield, with two essays concluding it was A-OK, constitutionally. “In some cases, people saying Trump needed congressional approval have gone too far” Politifact’s Lauren Carroll pronounces. For instance, Rep. Marc Pocan’s (D-WI) claim that there’s “no legal basis” for the strikes rates a full-on, needle-in-the-red “FALSE” on P-fact’s patented “Truth-o-Meter.” Tom Kertscher of Politifact Wisconsin asserts that: “For limited military activities like the missile strike, presidents can send in forces without approval from Congress.” You see, while the president may not have the legal authority to unilaterally launch a full-scale war, he can—if he thinks it’s a good idea, and assures himself it won’t bog us down—order up acts of war that don’t rise to the level of war: a light dusting of cruise missiles—a micro-aggression, constitutionally speaking.

What’s the legal basis for that? Politifact takes nearly 2,000 words to explain it all to you, but their answers are pretty thin: 1. Maybe the commander-in-chief clause?; 2. Other presidents have gotten away with stuff like this in the past; 3. Their lawyers say it’s ok; and 4. the 1973 War Powers Resolution “creates a process to act first and ask for permission later.” I rate those claims 1. False; 2. Irrelevant; 3. Nice try; and 4. Pants on Fire. 

Per Kertscher, “Experts agree that in limited instances, such as the Syrian missile attack, a president has legal authority provided in the Constitution as commander-in-chief.” But that clause, as Hamilton explained in Federalist 69, merely makes the president “first General and admiral” of US military forces, and does not extend “to the DECLARING of war.” And “experts” who believe it empowers the president to launch sudden attacks in the absence of an imminent threat are in the minority. Over at the Lawfare blog, Fordham’s Andrew Kent sums up the legal consensus: “at the core of the question—under the original meaning of the Constitution, who has the power to decide to initiate foreign war, the president or Congress?,” he writes, “the weight of evidence now tilts so strongly toward one view that the debate should be considered over. Under the best reading of the original understanding of constitutional war powers, President Trump’s strike on Syria was patently unconstitutional.”

That the strike was “limited,” and not the opening salvo in a full-scale war doesn’t make a constitutional difference. If it did, leading war powers scholar Michael Ramsey asks, then “why did virtually everyone in the immediate post-ratification era think that limited naval warfare, as against France in the Quasi-War, required Congress’ approval?” That included the bellicose, pro-executive Hamilton, who acknowledged that for President Adams to go beyond defensive acts protecting American shipping would “fall under the idea of reprisals & requires the sanction of that Department which is to declare or make war.” Our first president even doubted his authority to take unilateral action against hostile Indian tribes, writing that “The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.”

Syria and the Danger of Elite Consensus

There was near consensus in Washington, D.C. last week in support of the U.S. strike on Syria. Voices from the left supporting Trump’s action include Hillary Clinton, most of America’s European allies, Tom Friedman, and a large number of former Obama officials. On the right, the usual suspects like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham supported the attack, as did most Republican members of Congress, including some like Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell who opposed exactly such an action when President Obama was considering in back in 2013. Even the mainstream media appear to have decided it was time to strike Assad, at least to judge from much of the breathless “journalism” we’ve seen so far.

On first blush one might imagine that this consensus is a good thing, coming as it does during what has otherwise been an incredibly polarized first few months of Trump’s presidency. Finally, you might say, we agree on something. And all this agreement among the people we elect and pay to run U.S. foreign policy might also give you confidence that Trump did the right thing.

That confidence, sadly, would be misplaced. The truth is that the elite consensus on Syria, like Trump’s missile strike, is premature and ultimately dangerous to American national security.

The fundamental danger of elite consensus is that it undermines the marketplace of ideas. A democracy’s primary strength in foreign policy making is the ability to weigh competing policy proposals in the news media. Debate and deliberation reveal the evidence and logic behind competing claims and helps the public and political leaders assess the implications of different courses of action. This process, in theory, helps the United States avoid poor decisions.

Consensus, however, undermines this process by substituting doctrine for debate. Almost by definition, consensus requires little, if any, debate or deliberation. When was the last time elite consensus resulted from a free-flowing and vigorous debate in the United States? The natural outcome of debate is division and disagreement. Consensus emerges only when people already agree so completely on the key assumptions and value judgments involved that the conclusions are preordained and debate is unnecessary.

In the case of Syria, Republican and Democratic elites supported Trump’s missile strike not because they had an extended debate over its wisdom–in fact, there was zero debate before the surprise attack was announced–but because they all relied on the same basic doctrine that strongly endorses the value of military intervention, what Obama recently called the “Washington playbook.” Reliance on doctrine may be sufficient when the topic is how to handle routine issues, but it is clearly not the right approach when it comes to complex policy problems, about which both citizens and political leaders have incomplete information. Though beliefs are useful as general guidelines, they must be married to a careful consideration of the facts of the case at hand in order to produce sound policies. And the best way to assess the connection between beliefs and actions is to debate policy options in the marketplace of ideas.

Donald Trump, Syria, and the Power Problem

With his decision to launch missile strikes against an airfield in Syria, President Donald Trump has apparently learned a lesson that eventually dawns on all American presidents, especially in the post-Cold War era: with great power comes great responsibility. I call it the power problem.

The power problem was encapsulated in the exchange between then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright and Gen. Colin Powell, at the time the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?

Relieved of the burdens to justify U.S. military actions solely on the basis of our own national security interests, U.S. presidents and the foreign policy elites who advise them have gone searching for other reasons to use force. There will never be a shortage of aggrieved parties pleading for help. There is, however, a shortage of countries willing to help.

U.S. military power, and our willingness to use it, have discouraged others from possessing power of their own. They can reasonably claim that they lack the capability to act.

The United States doesn’t have that luxury. From the moment when a president arrives in the Oval Office, he possesses vast power, and few constraints on how it is used.

Using it wisely requires tremendous discipline, and a willingness to endure the criticisms of those who will accuse you of everything from callousness to mendacity – both when you act, and when you refuse to do so.

Trump’s repeated invocation of the doctrine “America First” suggested that he would not be swayed by such criticisms. And, in the past, he has suggested that the United States should not become involved in Syria’s civil war. In September 2013, for example, Donald Trump urged President Obama via Twitter not to attack Syria. 

But now, just 77 days into his presidency, he has created an inevitable rejoinder for every successive foreign policy crisis, anywhere in the world: “Mr. President, you struck Syrian government forces in April 2017. Why are you not striking [insert name of petty tyrant here] in response to equally grievous actions against [petty tyrant’s people]?”

In his statement last night justifying the use of unilateral force against Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria, President Trump explained “It is in this (sic) vital, national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” 

It is a debatable point, and one that deserves to be debated. A new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) would be a good place to start. There are risks, including conflict with nuclear-armed Russia. There are reasonable questions about what effect such strikes will have on Assad’s capacity to carry out similarly brutal killing by purely conventional means. And, lastly, having now introduced a very small increment of U.S. military power directly into the Syria conflict, some will wonder whether that signals a willingness to use much more. Those who castigated Barack Obama for refusing to intervene decisively in the Syrian civil war, including Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, hope so. The question is whether President Trump, in the face of all this uncertainty, will be able to resist the temptation to escalate.

If he succumbs, Americans could find themselves sucked into yet another elective military quagmire in the Middle East.

Safe Zones in Syria Are a Bad Idea

President Trump reportedly spoke with the king of Saudi Arabia on Sunday about imposing safe zones in Syria, presumably for the purpose of protecting civilians from rebels and Syrian and Russian bombardment. Such a policy carries a lot of risk, would likely violate international and U.S. law, and is strategically unwise.

Safe zones have a mixed record at best for protecting civilians. In the 1990s, Iraqi Shia in United Nations’ safe zones turned out to be not so safe from Saddam Hussein. Bosnian Muslims were unprotected in Srebrenica, the city now associated with a terrible massacre despite an established safe zone there. Even beyond the logistical challenge of setting up safe zones in the middle of a chaotic civil war, keeping the civilians safe inside is no piece of cake. Humanitarian relief would have to be supplied, which requires an additional commitment of resources and coordination. And it would be difficult to prevent Syrian rebel groups from infiltrating, targeting, or otherwise taking advantage of them. On-the-ground forces would be required to police the area and distinguish between militants and civilians seeking refuge. Moreover, safe zones would require, at the very least, sustained use of airpower to protect the skies over them and the territory around them. The Syrian air force and the Russian air force are already crowding those skies. U.S. intervention would be subject to direct challenge, or at the very least massively increase the chances of accidental confrontation.

Americans should also consider the legality of such a move. Establishing safe zones requires imposing on the territorial integrity of another sovereign nation and defending those zones with military force. Under international law, that’s illegal in the absence of host nation permission or an authorization from the UN Security Council. There is little chance Syria is going to give such permission to the United States and Saudi Arabia, and given Russia’s alliance with the Syrian regime, a Security Council authorization will not be forthcoming.

The Trump administration would be on similarly shaky ground as far as domestic U.S. law is concerned. U.S. military action in Syria during the Obama and now Trump administrations has no specific authorization from Congress. It has so far been justified legally by reference to the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which authorized action against those groups and individuals who carried out the 9/11 attacks and then against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Neither authorization could plausibly justify imposing safe zones and no-fly zones in Syria, operations that would clearly be unconnected to those past missions.

The State of War in Syria — In Two Charts

The fog of war, coupled with the output from multiple propaganda machines, makes it difficult to determine which side has the upper hand in any conflict. In Syria, it appears from recent reportage from Aleppo that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are getting the upper hand. But are they?

The best objective way to determine the course of a conflict is to observe black market (read: free market) exchange rates, and to translate changes in those rates via purchasing power parity into implied inflation rates. We at the Johns Hopkins–Cato Institute Troubled Currencies Project have been doing that for Syria since 2013.

The two accompanying charts—one for the Syrian pound and another for Syria’s implied annual inflation rate—plot the course of the war. It is clear that Assad and his allies are getting the upper hand. The pound has been stabilizing since June of this year and inflation has been trending downwards.

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