This week has seen new twists in an old debate about the policy that the United States should pursue with regard to Syria and its civil war.

The underlying problem is that Bashar Hafez al-Assad represents the worst of secular Arab dictators, while his most prominent opponents in the civil war represent the worst of the region’s pan-Islamic ambitions. Staying neutral between terrors seems impossible for a superpower with global commitments (and a severe petroleum addiction). Taking either side seems to run two equally grave risks: that it will be the winning side, and that it won’t be.

On June 26 the U.S. government issued a warning to that of Syria. Over the signature of White House press secretary Sean Spicer, the White House stated that U.S. intelligence has detected preparations underway at a Syrian airfield for a poison-gas attack on anti-Assad rebels, and that the White House would ensure that the Syrian military pays a heavy price if any such attack does occur. The full statement is here:

https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/06/26/statement-press-secretary

The twittersphere lit up, with the usual right/left alignments.

Left Wing View

One common prejudice in debate over U.S. foreign policy is the premise that any criticism of the leaders of any of the “front-line Arab states” must be intended for the benefit of Israel. Thus, some tweets confine themselves to suggestions of Zionist bias in the administration’ position. Responding to Ambassador Haley, “Jack” simply asked her, “Did Netanyahu hijack your twitter account?”


The following day. Joshua Keating was taking a more nuanced view in Slate. Opposition to Iran, he noted, “is emerging as the organizing principle of the Trump administration’s Mideast strategy” and Assad is allied with Iran. In Keating’s view, the administration has chosen a side on the see-saw – it is willing to elevate Islamicists, so long as they are anti-Iran Islamicists.

Unfortunately, it now appears certain that the civil war in Syria will outlast ISIS, though it will change form once ISIS is no longer a threat. The rebellion will change name and form, but the war will continue, and will still be “messy, dangerous, and deadly” Keating wrote. 

Amy Siskind, an advocate for various left-of-center causes and a former principal of Morgan Stanley, tweeted that the Trump regime should be held “accountable” for its issuance of such a “bizarre” threat.


Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Cal.) focused on the constitutional point, that Congress has never authorized the use of force against Assad.

By the morning of the 28th, the 4th International got into the act, the World Socialist Web Site compared the Trump administration in this context to the fictional President Francis Underwood of Netflix’ House of Cards.

Right Wing View

The evening of the warning, Nimrata (“Nikki”) Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, soon said that the consequences of Syrian intransigence “will be blamed on Assad” and on outside powers that support him, including Russia and Iran.

At RedState.com, Streiff wrote that the message from the White House might have several purposes, and that one of these might be to signal that the United States is “not interested in regime change – right now – but we could be convinced to change our minds.” The next retaliatory attack to follow a Syria use of poison gas (runs the subtext) won’t be as limited as was the one in April.

Whether this is a related development or not: it is worth noting here that before noon (Washington DC time) the following day, June 27, Al Jazeera English was carrying a report that at least 57 people, mostly civilians, had been killed in a U.S. led strike on an ISIS run facility.

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/06/dozens-dead-led-strike-syria-al-mayadeen-170627125208464.html

If the AJE report is accurate, it could be that by the conjunction of the warning to Assad and the attack on ISIS the administration is saying that it is willing to fight both the regime and the Islamicists with even-handed vigor and ordnance, so that neither side can hope to benefit from being on the other half of a see-saw from the folks we do attack.

Yet the see-saw nature of the situation, and the intolerability of either of the sides that may end up “up,” does worry many conservative writers on the subject.

Nicholas Frankovich, in National Review, expressed concern that “deposing Assad could hurt Syria’s Christians,” precisely because the secular character of Assad’s clique is “the only practical bulwark against greater chaos or the establishment of a Sunni regime that would be hostile to Christianity.”

In crude terms, then, Frankovich and many others on the right believe that Trump is hitting or threatening to hit the lesser-evil side of the see-saw.