Donald Trump launched air strikes on Syria over the weekend, and you may have noticed the reviews from Israel and its friends. The attacks were insufficient, and did nothing to destabilize the Assad regime or to keep Iran out of Syria. One Israeli official calls the Trump attack “mostly talk” that shows “actions are not going to follow.”
Liberal interventionist Democrats agree. At the J Street conference this week — which is the Democratic Party Israel lobby — I heard several hawkish statements about Syria, including saber-rattling from two former White House security aides.
Susan Rice, former Obama national security adviser, criticized Trump for not threatening regime change:
We very clearly telegraphed and very clearly now twice have demonstrated that we are not prepared to use regime threatening force to deal with the chemical weapons challenge, and therefore I think our leverage is even less than it might have been on chemical weapons before.
Rice said she was not for regime change, but she faulted Trump for not going crazy this time.
For all our handwringing and justified concern about President Trump’s temperament and how he may respond in a crisis situation, he could have played those concerns to our advantage. He could have been, had he wanted to be, demonstrably unpredictable and deliberately unpredictable, and used that to try to wrest a diplomatic opening with the Russians.
That criticism was echoed by a former Clinton security aide now running for Congress. Nancy Soderberg said Trump handed Syria to Iran “on a silver platter.” Soderberg is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Congress in an open Florida district, and she says Jewish voters are worried:
I went to the Jewish heritage festival for the upcoming 70th anniversary [of Israel] yesterday in Florida. And I think people are nervous about what’s happening in the middle east. They’re nervous about what’s happening in Iran in particular. We just handed Syria over to Iran on a silver platter.
Soderberg also said that the Syria situation is an “opportunity” for Democrats to adopt a more hawkish policy in foreign policy and outflank Republicans:
We need a little bit stronger more honed message about, We’re the party that keeps America safe…. I’m worried about Iran, and Syria is increasingly a major threat to U.S. interests and to Israel’s interests in the region. So I think we need to be much more vocal about, we are the party of security and safety and we’ll stand up for American values, and I think that will resonate with the American people.
Sadly, these hawkish statements represent the mainstream in Democratic Party politics. Senator Bernie Sanders was critical of the strikes, of course, but he is still marginalized by the party leaders. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland is also antiwar, but he observed that Trump ran to the Democratic Party’s left on foreign policy.
Republican libertarians have been more reliable sources of antiwar sentiment. Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky said that Trump security officials have produced no real evidence that Assad was behind the recent chemical attacks. Senator Rand Paul has written that the Syria war was never our fight.
President Trump is listening far too much to the foreign policy swamp that he fought against. Our hawkish, neoconservative foreign policy and wars of the last 17 years have brought us trillions of dollars in debt and made us less safe.
Meantime, the Democratic mainstream is pushing for a bigger war. Look at the New York Times running Ronen Bergman’s piece last week urging Israeli strikes on Syria because of a Jewish responsibility stemming from the Holocaust (!). Or Dexter Filkins calling in The New Yorker for a major pounding of Assad.
The trouble is, Assad deserves much worse, and he’s not going to get it—not from the United States, nor from the West more generally. American forces could have inflicted much greater damage—Trump could have ordered the killing of Assad and everyone around him if he had wanted to. I’m confident that neither Trump nor any of his senior military advisers have any love for Assad. But, in testimony last week, Defense Secretary James Mattis said he was worried that American military action in Syria, if it went too far, could start a wider war, principally with Assad’s chief patron, Russia.
Israel is threatening to take further action of its own, because of Iran, of course. Reuters reports that Israel is hankering to attack an Iranian “air force” and “garrison” in Syria.
“Israel is headed for escalation,” Yaacov Amidror, former national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Tel Aviv radio station 103 FM. “There could be a very big belligerent incident with Iran and Hezbollah.”
Susan Rice warned at J Street about that famous Iranian landbridge “from Tehran all the way to the Mediterranean.”
While Rolly Gueron, a former Mossad official, said that Israel faces no “existential” threats, but he warned that “Israel might be forced to carry out some more aggressive measures” in Syria against Iran.
One threat is the very extreme radical Iranian ambition to establish a permanent military presence in Syria thus establishing a Shiite crescent from Iran to Lebanon and at the expense of Sunnis in the middle east who are increasingly getting weaker and weaker. Israel cannot really tolerate such a threat for very long time.
Mitchell Plitnick at Lobelog notes that Israel is not pleased with Trump’s policy, but is not willing to call him out either:
Israel has been watching developments in Syria with increasing apprehension. That concern grew considerably when the Trump administration agreed with Russia to permit an Iranian presence, under Russian supervision, in the cease-fire zone in southern Syria last year. The growing Israeli apprehension is reflected in the steadily increasing incidents of Israeli strikes in Syria, strikes which already threaten to escalate into direct conflict with Iran.
Had Barack Obama agreed to an Iranian presence in Syria so close to Israel, the so-called “pro-Israel” crowd would have said he is trying to destroy the Jewish state. Yet, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to embrace Trump, this decision was not to his or any other Israeli leader’s liking. If the U.S. now pulls out of Syria completely, there can be no doubt that Israel will take much more robust steps to counter the Iranian presence.