Surely Donald Trump must know that if you’re going to threaten military action against another government, your military better be on the same page.
Yet that didn’t seem to be the case Monday night when the White House press office shot off a harsh and sudden warning to Bashar Assad, who they believed was planning another chemical attack on Syria’s people, warning the Syrian strongman to expect a “heavy price” if he followed through.
The thing is, Trump’s warning seemed to come as a surprise to many U.S. defense officials, who told the New York Times and BuzzFeed they weren’t aware of the potential chemical strike and the consequent statement. One official from the U.S. Central Command said he had “no idea” what inspired the late-night warning. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Joseph Dunford were both out of the country at the time the ultimatum was issued. On Tuesday, the White House contested reports suggesting there was inter-agency confusion around the release of Monday’s statement.
But analysts say the apparent breakdown in communication goes beyond an embarrassing blip and reflects a broader lack of a coherent strategy on Syria that risks pushing the U.S. deeper into an impossible quagmire – and threatens to bring them into more direct confrontation with rivals Iran and Russia.
“A huge amount of what’s going on seems disconnected”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer announced in a statement Monday that the U.S. had “identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children.” He said the activities were similar to the moves observed prior to a suspected chemical weapons attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April, to which the U.S. responded by attacking a Syrian airbase.
The announcement set off a series of confused comments from U.S. defense officials about an announcement that would typically be coordinated between multiple agencies prior to release.
“A huge amount of what’s going on seems disconnected — the State Department, the White House, the Pentagon seem to be singing from different song sheets,” said Christopher Phillips, senior lecturer on Middle Eastern international relations at the University of London.
Phillips said that the lack of coordination reflected the more glaring absence of coherent U.S. strategy when it comes to Syria.
Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House, agreed.
“There’s still no coherent strategy on Syria,” Khatib said.
Despite the lack of a clear plan, both agreed the White House’s stark warning over the potential chemical attack was in keeping with an increasingly assertive U.S. posture in Syria since Trump came to office. Analysts have warned this path has the stench of mission creep and risks setting the U.S. on course for more direct and higher-stakes confrontation with Assad’s key backers, Iran and Russia, as all parties flex their muscles on the battlefield.
“You can see this escalated rhetoric as part of a wider wish to present the U.S. in a tougher light vis-a-vis Iran and Russia,” said Khatib.
“What’s the United States trying to do?
Besides the attack on Syria’s Shayrat airbase on April 6, the U.S. shot down a Syrian fighter jet earlier this month, claiming it had posed a threat to its allies on the ground. The unprecedented shootdown – which Phillips said amounted to “quite a big step in sucking the US into an outright confrontation with the Assad regime and its allies” – prompted a furious reaction from Syria’s backers, with Moscow saying it was cutting the “deconfliction line,” a direct means of communication with the U.S. set up to prevent any unintentional direct conflict in Syria.
Khatib said the escalations were occurring as the war entered a new phase, with the U.S., Iran, and Russia all attempting to project power in eastern Syria to assert control over territory being lost by ISIS. Iran has also been increasingly flexing its military might in the region, firing missile strikes from its own territory at targets in Syria for the first time earlier this month.
As the campaigns against ISIS continue, and rival militias on the ground gobble up territory they have surrendered, the risk of direct confrontation between the U.S. and Syria, Iran, or Russia becomes greater.
Phillips said that Iran and Russia’s interests in eastern Syria were clear – to help their Syrian client capture as much of the retreating ISIS caliphate as they can. But it was unclear what the U.S.’ long-term goals were in eastern Syria, where it is providing support to a Kurdish-led militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against ISIS.
“What’s the United States trying to do? Are they trying to control eastern Syria? If they do capture this territory, are they going to stay there indefinitely to act as an SDF air force?” he said. “Both Obama and Trump have been very bad at explaining what their plan is after ISIS.”