In­ter­na­tional machi­na­tions de­mand that we ask “cui bono?”

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT - WORLD AF­FAIRS

DON­ALD TRUMP HAS SPENT a lot of time in the courts, so he must be fa­mil­iar with the le­gal con­cept of “cui bono” – “who ben­e­fits?” When a crime is com­mit­ted, the like­li­est cul­prit is the per­son who ben­e­fited from the deed. But he cer­tainly did not ap­ply that prin­ci­ple when de­cid­ing to at­tack a Syr­ian gov­ern­ment air­base with 59 cruise mis­siles last week.

The at­tack against Shayrat air­base, the first U.S. mil­i­tary ac­tion against Bashar al-As­sad’s regime in six years of civil war, was al­legedly a re­tal­i­a­tion for a poi­son gas at­tack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun three days be­fore that Pres­i­dent Trump blamed on the Syr­ian regime. But who stood to ben­e­fit from the chem­i­cal at­tack in the first place?

There was ab­so­lutely no di­rect mil­i­tary ad­van­tage to be de­rived from killing 80 civil­ians with poi­son gas in Khan Sheikhoun. The town, lo­cated in al-Qaeda­con­trolled ter­ri­tory in Idlib prov­ince, is not near any front line and is of no mil­i­tary sig­nif­i­cance. The one use­ful thing that the gas at­tack might pro­duce, with an im­pul­sive new pres­i­dent in the White House, was an Amer­i­can at­tack on the Syr­ian regime.

Who would ben­e­fit from that? Well, the rebels ob­vi­ously would. They have been on the ropes since the As­sad regime re­con­quered Aleppo in De­cem­ber, and if the warm­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween Washington and Moscow re­sulted in an im­posed peace set­tle­ment in Syria, they would lose ev­ery­thing. (Only a few days ago, U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son said that re­mov­ing As­sad from power was no longer Washington’s pri­or­ity.)

Al-Qaeda – and prob­a­bly sev­eral other rebel groups – have ac­cess to chem­i­cal weapons. The coun­try was awash with them be­fore the war, be­cause the abil­ity to make a mass chem­i­cal­weapons at­tack on Is­rael was Syria’s only de­ter­rent against an Is­raeli nu­clear at­tack. (As­sad, and his fa­ther be­fore him, un­der­stood clearly that Syria would never be al­lowed to have nu­clear weapons of its own.)

Chem­i­cal weapons were stored in mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties all over Syria, and at one point half the coun­try was un­der rebel con­trol. So of course the rebels have had some for years, and are known to have used them on oc­ca­sion in their own in­ternecine wars. Would al-Qaeda have hes­i­tated to use them on in­no­cent civil­ians in or­der to trig­ger an Amer­i­can at­tack on the Syr­ian regime? Of course not.

The results have al­ready been spec­tac­u­lar. The de­vel­op­ing Rus­sian-Amer­i­can al­liance in Syria is bro­ken, the prospect of an im­posed peace that side­lines the rebels – in­deed, of any peace at all – has re­treated be­low the hori­zon, and Rex Tiller­son has just de­clared that “steps are un­der­way” to form an in­ter­na­tional coali­tion to force Bashar al-As­sad from power. Not a bad re­turn on a small in­vest­ment.

But we should also con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that Bashar al-As­sad ac­tu­ally did or­der the at­tack. Why would it do that? For ex­actly the same rea­son: to trig­ger an Amer­i­can at­tack on the Syr­ian regime. From a pol­icy per­spec­tive, that could make per­fectly good sense.

The Amer­i­can at­tack didn’t re­ally hurt much, af­ter all, and it has al­ready smashed a de­vel­op­ing Rus­sian-Amer­i­can re­la­tion­ship in Syria that could have ended up im­pos­ing un­wel­come con­di­tions on As­sad. In­deed, Moscow and Washington might ul­ti­mately have de­cided that eject­ing As­sad (though not the en­tire regime) from power was an es­sen­tial part of the peace set­tle­ment.

As­sad doesn’t want for­eign­ers de­cid­ing his fate, and he doesn’t want a “pre­ma­ture” peace set­tle­ment ei­ther. He wants the war to go on long enough for him to re­con­quer and re­unite the whole coun­try (with Rus­sian help, of course). So use a lit­tle poi­son gas, and Don­ald Trump will oblig­ingly over-re­act. That should end the threat of U.S.-Rus­sian col­lab­o­ra­tion in Syria.

Ei­ther of these pos­si­bili-

ties – a false-flag at­tack by al-Qaeda or a de­lib­er­ate provo­ca­tion by the regime it­self – is quite plau­si­ble. What is not re­motely be­liev­able is the no­tion that the stupid and evil Syr­ian regime just de­cided that a ran­dom poi­son gas at­tack on an unim­por­tant town would be a bit of fun.

Vil­lains in DC Comics do bad things sim­ply be­cause they are evil. The play­ers in the Syr­ian civil war do bad things be­cause they are part of se­ri­ous (though of­ten evil) strate­gies. Who­ever com­mit­ted the atroc­ity at Khan Sheikhoun wanted the United States to at­tack the Syr­ian regime, and Don­ald Trump fell for it.

But if Trump was taken in by the Syr­i­ans, he cer­tainly ex­ploited his at­tack to send a very se­ri­ous mes­sage to China and North Korea. He is a player too, af­ter all, and it can hardly be an ac­ci­dent that he timed the at­tack for the day of his meet­ing with China’s Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping.

Wheels within wheels. It is go­ing to be a wild ride.

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