(CNN) Dozens dead in possible gas attack in Syria; regime denies allegation. Since the Assad regime has the means, motive, and history of prior use of chemical weapons, there is little reason to doubt a serial offense.
Now the words are flying. (CNN) McCain: Trump ’emboldened’ Assad with comments on US withdrawal from Syria. Possibly so, but only in the sense of this specific incident, at this moment in time. Had this not occurred, there would still be the inevitability of Future Crime. It doesn’t take Minority Report to predict a Syrian future of genocide. Focusing on the current gas attack is a natural response to the horror, but it is merely a taste of what is yet to come, when Assad’s mukhabarat attempts to “reconstruct” Syria by traditional means of repression. Is it more significant that 20 innocents die by gas, as opposed to a 1000 by traditional tortures and hangings?
The 2017 Shayrat missile strike, a year ago, arguably saved civilian lives by deterring major use of gas, for a year. Another strike could have a similar effect of time limited deterrence. For Assad, deterrence is not a lesson to be learned, but a calculation of risk and reward, subject to continuous recalculation.
The great advantage the Russians, and Assad, have over the U.S. is that they know what they want, and how to get it. And until recently, U.S. strategy contained a fatal flaw, the empowerment of elements so close to the jihadist mainstream that two of the three components, with banner titles of “political opposition” and “jihadist”,were largely compatible. The third incompatible component had another flaw, lack of will for violent struggle, which means, they weren’t very good at fighting. In fact. they were terrible. A fix for these two flaws can now be envisioned.
Retaliation for the gas attacks is a balm for our souls, and would in the short term save some lives from gas. The lives we save face a terrible future. But while these days the parties give scant credit to each other for durable aspects of foreign policy, the disengagement of the U.S. from the role of world policeman was actually initiated with Obama’s “lead from behind” stance. Named and described differently, much of this continues with the Trump administration. The distinction between the former administration, and the present, is that the use of proxies is now far more skillful.
The major U.S. proxies in Syria, which the Obama administration shied from under Turkish pressure, are the Kurds, They are remarkably more compatible with Western values than the jihadist mix of the previous administration. The compatibility of their culture extends to potency as a fighting force. While the many Reuters photos reveal staged photos of jihadists striking poses as they spray a street on full automatic, these caricatures are absent with the Kurds. They fight to live, not to die, a large part of their superiority in combat.
This is why the Kurds are (CNN) sitting on the largest part of Syria’s oil fields, depriving Assad of the revenue he needs to oil his mukhabarat death machine. With iron-clad U.S. support, the fields can be held indefinitely. Should political leverage ever become a meaningful concept in Syria, the fields offer it in spades. The fields can also be the centerpiece of a new nation, Eastern Syria, Western Kurdistan, o something like that.
So here are three options for U.S. policy, which are at least expressible as compact, well defined objectives.
- Build a new nation. Drop our sanctimonious respect for the inviolability of fictitious nations (Sykes Picot Agreement) ruled by murderous tin-pot dictators. Tear up the map and draw your own lines. The men in striped pants may wring their hands. So what?
- Make the oil fields held by the Kurds an impregnable bastion. This would deprive the rest of Syria of economic viability. It would make Assad’s Syria a perpetual drain on the Russians and Iranians. It would also have value as an anchor point for anti-Iranian proxies. Ten or twenty years down the road, the Russians might decide to talk to us honestly.
- Blow up Assad’s air force, and tell ourselves we’ve done a good deed. Get out. Plug our ears and cover our eyes to the future of Syria.
I’m not choosing. That’s up to you.