A sud­den Syr­ian stum­bling block

U.S.-Rus­sian co­op­er­a­tion is de­railed by a puz­zling chem­i­cal at­tack

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Ed­ward Lozan­sky and Jim Ja­tras Ed­ward Lozan­sky is pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Univer­sity in Moscow. Jim Ja­tras is a for­mer U.S. diplo­mat and for­eign pol­icy ad­viser to the Se­nate GOP lead­er­ship.

Up un­til about a week ago, we saw the be­gin­nings of the new “Amer­ica First” ap­proach to na­tional se­cu­rity that Don­ald Trump had promised dur­ing the cam­paign and which had helped win him the pres­i­dency. In Syria, co­op­er­a­tion with Rus­sia had be­gun to tar­get the Is­lamic State, al Qaeda, and other em­bod­i­ments of “rad­i­cal Is­lamic ter­ror­ism,” which Pres­i­dent Trump has sworn to de­stroy.

At home, things had also shifted. Democrats’ “Rus­si­a­gate” claims that Moscow had tried to skew the 2016 elec­tion in Mr. Trump’s fa­vor, based on zero ev­i­dence, were fall­ing apart. Ques­tions about who leaked clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion as part of a “soft coup” against Mr. Trump mounted with calls to put Su­san Rice and Eve­lyn Farkas un­der oath and make them sing, take the Fifth or per­jure them­selves.

Ev­ery­thing changed on April 4 with me­dia re­ports of a chem­i­cal weapons at­tack in an al Qaeda-con­trolled town in Syria’s Idlib gov­er­norate. None of the re­ports came from in­de­pen­dent me­dia or in­ter­na­tional experts’ ex­am­i­na­tion of the site but were based en­tirely on cell phone footage and so­cial me­dia from sources hos­tile to the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment.

The re­ports in­stantly re­ceived sat­u­ra­tion cov­er­age from main­stream me­dia around the world. West­ern and al­lied gov­ern­ments, in­clud­ing re­gional pow­ers aligned against Bashar Assad, im­me­di­ately con­cluded that he and his Rus­sian and Ira­nian back­ers were guilty. At an emer­gency meet­ing of the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, calls by Rus­sia and oth­ers for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion were con­temp­tu­ously dis­missed by west­ern rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

On April 7, on or­ders from Pres­i­dent Trump, Amer­i­can war­ships in the Mediter­ranean hit Syria’s Shayrat air­base, iden­ti­fied by Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser H.R. Mc­Mas­ter with a “very high de­gree of con­fi­dence” as “pre­cisely where the lo­ca­tion orig­i­nated,” with 59 Tom­a­hawk cruise mis­siles. Syria re­ported 16 killed, in­clud­ing nine civil­ians. Moscow was re­port­edly warned about the strike and there were no Rus­sian ca­su­al­ties.

On the do­mes­tic front, much of the me­dia and po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment that had been hos­tile to Mr. Trump sud­denly were sing­ing his praises. CNN’s Fa­reed Zakaria, pre­vi­ously a harsh critic who had de­rided Mr. Trump’s “rock­ing horse pres­i­dency” as a “cir­cus,” in­toned the next day: “I think Don­ald Trump be­came pres­i­dent of the United States last night.”

Trump sup­port­ers were split. Some wel­comed it as a sign that “Amer­ica is back” but some — in­clud­ing the writ­ers of these lines — viewed the at­tack with dis­tress and a sense of be­trayal. Ann Coul­ter tweeted: “Trump cam­paigned on not get­ting in­volved in Mideast. Said it al­ways helps our en­e­mies & cre­ates more refugees. Then he saw a pic­ture on TV.”

“This whole thing stinks to high heaven,” said talk show host Michael Sav­age. “It looks like Hil­lary, Deep State won, and Trump is do­ing her bid­ding.”

Mr. Sav­age went on to raise a point prob­a­bly on the minds of more crit­ics of the ac­tion than are will­ing to ad­mit it: Were Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces re­ally re­spon­si­ble for the Idlib at­tack? Rep. Tulsi Gab­bard, spon­sor of the Stop Arm­ing Ter­ror­ists Act to cut off tax dol­lars for giv­ing weapons to ISIS, al Qaeda, and their al­lies, has been blasted from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum for sim­ply say­ing she was “skep­ti­cal” of the ac­cepted ver­sion of events.

Mr. Assad had no rea­son to launch such an at­tack. Far from des­per­ate, he is win­ning the war and was about to go into peace talks in a strong po­si­tion. Wash­ing­ton had essen­tially dis­avowed regime change.

By con­trast, the ji­hadists, with their mil­i­tary sit­u­a­tion wors­en­ing, had ev­ery mo­tive to launch a false flag. It is well known that ISIS, alQaeda and oth­ers have a chem­i­cal ca­pa­bil­ity. There is rea­son to be­lieve that ji­hadists, not gov­ern­ment forces, were be­hind the 2013 Ghouta “red line” at­tack, us­ing “kitchen sarin” sup­plied by Turk­ish in­tel­li­gence.

Ascer­tain­ing the truth is crit­i­cal in light of Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials’ threat to in­flict much more ex­ten­sive harm on Syria if there is another chem­i­cal at­tack. If the ji­hadists were in­deed re­spon­si­ble for Idlib, the prospect of dead­lier mea­sures con­sti­tutes a stand­ing in­vi­ta­tion for them to do it again.

Mean­while, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son has ar­rived in Moscow. Much may ride on what kind of mes­sage he bears and whether the Rus­sians show him some se­ri­ous proof that is not Mr. Assad who is re­spon­si­ble for this heinous crime.

If Mr. Tiller­son comes pre­pared to dic­tate terms — Mr. Assad must go, Syria must be par­ti­tioned, Rus­sia must ac­qui­esce to any fu­ture U.S. mil­i­tary ac­tion against Iran — things will not go well.

But if, as some spec­u­late, the at­tack on the Shayrat air­base was de­signed as a mea­sured re­sponse to show the world that Mr. Trump is not a man to be tri­fled with and to neu­tral­ize his do­mes­tic crit­ics, which seems par­tially to have been ac­com­plished, Mr. Tiller­son per­haps can get much-needed U.S.-Rus­sia co­op­er­a­tion against the ter­ror­ists back on track.


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