U.S. Ramps Up Threats of Military Action Against Syria’s Assad

The administration is worried about lingering Iranian and Russian influence in Syria.

Smoke rises in the Syrian village of Kafr Ain in the southern countryside of Idlib province after an airstrike on Sept. 7. (Anas al-Dyab/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke rises in the Syrian village of Kafr Ain in the southern countryside of Idlib province after an airstrike on Sept. 7. (Anas al-Dyab/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States is threatening to attack Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for a third time should it use chemical weapons in an assault on the northwestern province of Idlib, marking a significant shift in strategy after months of indications that the United States would soon pull out of the conflict.

In the most explicit warning to date, U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, said Monday that the United States and its British and French allies had agreed that another use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would trigger a significant escalation, compared to previous airstrikes.

“We’ve tried to convey the message in recent days that if there’s a third use of chemical weapons, the response will be much stronger,” Bolton said after a policy speech in Washington.

Bolton’s comments come on the heels of the revelation that the Defense Department is drawing up options for possible military action against Assad as Russian and Syrian airstrikes began pummeling the last remaining rebel stronghold in the country. The United Nations has warned of a humanitarian catastrophe if the attacks continue. Idlib and its surrounding area are home to some 3 million people, including more than a million civilians displaced from other parts of Syria.

Trump “has been clear on the consequences for the use of chemical weapons,” Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Saturday.

Although no decision has been made to strike Assad’s forces, he noted that the president “expects us to have military options, and we have provided updates to him on the development of those military options.”

Trump has twice bombed the Syrian regime over the alleged use of chemical weapons, once in April 2017 and then again earlier this year.

The administration is “trying to send a clear warning” to the Assad regime, said Melissa Dalton, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. However, she noted that officials are also trying to “keep the door open” to a diplomatic solution to the violence in Idlib.

The Pentagon’s thinly veiled threat is the latest indication of Trump’s recent about-face on Syria. Until last week, he had indicated a desire to pull out of the country once the Islamic State militant group is defeated—against the wishes of his defense secretary and many of his advisors. About 2,000 U.S. troops are currently operating in Syria, most of them in the eastern region of the country.

The move to bring U.S. troops home prematurely, coupled with the decision to cancel some $200 million in funding earmarked for Syria’s recovery, would leave the Middle Eastern nation vulnerable to Russian and Iranian influence, experts have warned.

But on Thursday, James Jeffrey, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s newly appointed special envoy to Syria, indicated that the president has agreed to a new plan: U.S. forces will remain in the country to ensure not just the defeat of the Islamic State but also the departure of all Iranian forces.

The new strategy reflects a push to ramp up pressure on the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian backers, as Assad appears poised to complete a remarkable rebound in the country’s seven-year civil war.

“The new policy is we’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year,” Jeffrey said, according to the Washington Post. “That means we are not in a hurry.”

He added: “I am confident the president is on board with this.”

Trump himself warned early last week that an attack by Assad on Idlib would make the U.S. “very, very angry.” In a tweet, he called out Russia and Iran by name.

“President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province. The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!” Trump tweeted.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley echoed this warning on Thursday during a United Nations Security Council meeting on chemical weapons use in Syria.

“We want to take this opportunity to remind [Assad] and his Russian and Iranian partners: You don’t want to bet against the United States responding again,” Haley said.

She called specifically on Moscow to stop Assad’s assault on Idlib, which she called “a reckless escalation even if chemical weapons were not used.”

In another show of force, the Pentagon launched a surprise exercise in southern Syria on Friday after Russia threatened military action in an area of Syria where U.S. troops are located. The exercise involves U.S. troops flying into the Tanf garrison by assault helicopter and conducting a live-fire drill, according to a statement from U.S. Central Command.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, believes the president’s abrupt shift in strategy is the result of increasing Russian and Iranian influence in Syria. In a paper published on Friday, O’Hanlon and his colleagues at Brookings argued for a “10-degree shift” in U.S. policy on Syria that includes maintaining the current military presence in the northeast and east, and working with Assad’s allies, such as Russia, to persuade him to eventually step down.

“I am happy with the reports about an indefinite stay,” O’Hanlon said, but added: “We also need a more realistic political strategy, explicitly and publicly, that ties everything together and lays out a vision and recognizes the reality of Assad’s continued rule, at least in some of the country, at least for a while.”

Jeffrey, the new Syria envoy, and Joel Rayburn, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, likely worked hard in recent weeks to convince the president that maintaining a longer-term U.S. presence in Syria is crucial to keeping Russian and Iranian influence in the region at bay, Dalton said.

“Arguably removing U.S. force presence [in northeast Syria] allows the Assad regime to retake that territory, and of course, who comes with them? Iran,” Dalton said.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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