Was “Tomahawking” Syria for an alleged gas attack justifiable retribution, misfeasance, malfeasance or just a mistake? Was it a warning to China and North Korea as some have advanced? (This is the same line of thinking that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was really aimed cautioning the Soviet Union.) Why would China, the “celestial kingdom,” powerful in her own right, pay attention; why would North Korea, in the hands of a madman, even care?
Given the vagaries of the Middle East, truth is the first and last casualty. The first accusation of a gas attack by Syrian President Bashar Assad against rebel strongholds failed the smell test; it was more likely done by the regime’s enemies. In the latest iteration, is there conclusive evidence of culpability? Maybe I missed it. It’s more likely that Mr. Assad’s jets hit an ISIS chemical weapons dump, releasing the poison into the surrounding neighborhoods. So far, the allegations consist of words like “likely,” “leads to” and on and on in that vein. We are presented with suppositions and possibilities, but that is all.
Should we take Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ pronouncements at face value? Could he not be given misinformation? Could assertion of an Assad gas attack follow the formula of the Tonkin Gulf incident? Who profits from the gas attack? Certainly not Mr. Assad, who lived in London and knows full well the military power of the United States. Why would he, winning on the battlefield, use gas, which he knows would bring on the opprobrium of the West and a military attack? Who profits then? Why not ISIS and its friends who, by blaming Mr. Assad, might inspire American might to remove the great obstacle to their Dark Ages mentality?
Mr. Assad is an Alewite, a Shia faction heretical in the eyes of Sunni ISIS and, therefore, their enemy. As a Baathist, and therefore a modernizer, he is also antithetical to those Muslims who wish to resurrect a caliphate. The Baathist Party, which he represents, was founded by Michel Afliq, a Christian. It is a party that, in spite of its jumble of nationalism, Arabism and socialism, has seen itself as a bringing Arab society into the present, releasing it from the straitjacket of an Islam mired in the 12th century.
Compounding their offenses, the Assad family has protected Christians, whom the caliphate crowd see as infidels deserving of death. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, they have never passed up the opportunity to reinforce their hatred of Christianity or other Muslims. The press gives short shrift to the atrocities against Christians in the Middle East, and never reports on the efforts of Franciscan monks in Aleppo to relieve suffering caused by the civil war and the Muslim militias. In short, if Mr. Assad were to go, Alewites and Christians would be on the extermination list. With no alternative other than the death for him and his supporters and clients, Mr. Assad will hold on.
Knowledge of Syria by this administration and its predecessor is shallow at best. T.E. Lawrence wrote in his “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” that the Arab delights in chicanery. In hospitality, the Arabs can be extremely generous (as I experienced in Iraq), but was Lawrence right in saying that they were also “unstable as water” and that we delude “ourselves that perhaps peace might find the Arabs able to defend themselves with paper tools”?
The Syrian situation amply supplies examples of all. The Obama administration’s policy, enunciated by U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power as a “duty to protect” (i.e., U.S. intervention in the “Arab Spring”), was a dangerous absurdity in lands whose undercurrents are unfathomable to the Western mind. It led to nearly losing Egypt to the Muslim Brotherhood and the unconstitutional attack on Libya, ensuring chaos and then the murder of Moammar Gadhafi, who was not a threat and who had kept a lid on the fanatical murderous rage of ISIS.
The history of the Middle East is one of bloodshed and oppression; this conflict is just another in an age-old saga. To think that by backing anti-Assad forces or removing him from power will lead to a flowering of democracy and peace is a fantasy. It would behoove this administration to examine the tumultuous French experience in Syria under the League of Nations mandate; we are not dealing with Anglo-Saxons. Unless the United States and the West is prepared to put troops on the ground, who would be first welcomed and then shot at, it is advisable to stay out and make them sort it out on their own.
• William Layer is a historian who covered Air Force presidential operations during the early years of the Reagan administration.