Syria: Another chemical attack?

Syria is preparing another chemical attack, so says the Trump White House, warning of dire consequences if the Assad regime carries that out. I talked about this a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

I don’t have any direct information one way of the other, but let’s consider some background.

–The awful April chemical attack that killed about 70 people in Idlib province appeared designed to drive civilians out of a town before a government offensive. Terrorism, in other words. It worked, by the way.

So where does the Syrian regime need to use chemical weapons to clear out an area now? The White House didn’t say. As the Al-Jazeera map above illustrates, Syria has been reduced to a patchwork of competing enclaves, and there is heavy fighting going on in several parts of Syria, including near the border of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. So it’s conceivable that one of these pockets might be a target. But there’s no obvious place where a chemical attack would serve the purposes of the Assad regime.

–Now let’s look at the cynical possibilities, once again with no evidence to back them up: If Syria carries out a chemical attack, the US could retaliate the way it did in April, bombing a Syrian air force base. The attack accomplished little on the ground, as Russia was warned beforehand and got the Syrian forces out of the base before the onslaught of dozens of cruise missiles, and the base was back in operation within days. But Trump got what he wanted–a “message” to Assad and the world, for whatever that’s worth. Not much, in my view–the era of “messages” is long past. Their targets have to believe that there’s something painful and punishing behind them, and usually there isn’t.

So let’s say it’s all bogus, “fake news,” there never was going to be another Syrian chemical attack, and there isn’t one. Then the Trump administration can proclaim that it prevented an attack with its warning. Win-win.

I’ll keep looking, but it’s unlikely that any evidence one way or the other is going to turn up, unless the attack actually happens. As I said in the broadcast, that’s a horrible way to confirm a news story.

Escalate Syria fight? Yes, say Trump officials

Two White House officials want to escalate the American involvement in Syria, a way of fighting a proxy war against Iran. This comes as the US shot down a Syrian warplane for the first time in the six-year Syrian civil war. I discussed the implications with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh a few minutes ago.

The report of the recommendation for escalating US involvement in Syria comes from a prestigious New York University think tank, which puts out a daily newsletter about security. The report also says that Defense Secretary James Mattis opposes the idea, and it’s not the first time he’s stood in the way of a White House effort to ratchet up the Syria conflict.

So “Mad Dog” Mattis is the voice of reason in this administration? That’s something to think about.

The shooting down of the Syrian warplane has led Russia to threaten to close down the hot line the US and Russia use to inform each other about air operations, so that they can stay out of each other’s way. The Russians have already declared that they consider American warplanes operating west of the Euphrates River in Syria as potential targets. That means about two-thirds of Syria, including Damascus and Aleppo.

It’s not certain that Russia will end its coordination with the US or start firing at US warplanes and drones. Russia has little interest in expanding the conflict in Syria–it just wants to keep the Assad regime in power there. But in a war situation, anything can happen, even by accident. This is no game of checkers–this is life and death.

I understand that the US sees Iran as the major troublemaker in the Middle East. So does Israel. The problem comes when only one countermeasure–military force–is considered. As then-President Obama put it in this context, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

The problem, if it needs defining again, is that there are no good guys in Syria–only bad guys and worse guys. As the fight against ISIS progresses, and ISIS loses territory, there’s a free-for-all to take control of that territory. The competing sides include the Assad regime, US-backed rebel forces, Iranian-backed forces, local rebels, and I probably left out a few.

The multi-sided fighting is closing in on US bases in several locations. That’s what led to the shooting down of the Syrian warplane. Here’s an article by top Pentagon correspondent Nancy Youssef about the dangers involved in this developing situation.


Syrian refugee camp in Turkey

So–is that the fight the White House officials want to get more deeply involved in? Or would it be better to step back, help the refugees, help the rebuilding effort when it begins, and try to win the respect of whoever survives this tragedy?

It’s time to find something to replace the hammer. Stepped-up humanitarian aid would be a more effective, long-term tool. Let’s understand that Iran, and more so ISIS, are ideas as much as they are military forces. Ideas can’t be smashed with hammers.

Saudi Arabia hits Qatar over terror–a pot and kettle thing

Saudi Arabia breaking with Qatar because Qatar supportsĀ  terrorism? That’s like the Mafia breaking with Chicago because there’s crime in Chicago. I discussed this a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

There’s another expression I remember from my days in the US 40+ years ago, probably politically incorrect by now–“That’s the pot calling the kettle black.”

There’s no doubt that the Saudi-orchestrated move of Muslim states cutting diplomatic relations with Qatar is a significant development, showing how the realignment of the Middle East is complicated, violent and contradictory all together.

It certainly complicates US President Trump’s simplistic idea that all the “reasonable” qatarrapMuslim countries will be glad to unite and fight the radicals like al-Qaida and ISIS, a kind of international war on terror. Nuances in the Middle East, well, nuances in general, appear lost on this administration.

What everyone is ignoring is that the main backer, purveyor, spreader of extreme Islamic ideology and terrorism is Saudi Arabia. Since the 1970s, the Saudis have been actively exporting their extreme version of Wahhabi Islam, based on the twin ideals of reverting to 7th-century practices and exporting that ideology around the Muslim world through funding mosques and schools called madrassas. Saudi Arabia’s home religion is the basis for al-Qaida and ISIS.

It’s not the basis of the Muslim Brotherhood. There’s a debate in the Trump administration now about whether to declare the Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization. That’s a separate issue, but it’s worthwhile noting that the Brotherhood emerged in Egypt in the 1920s as a political grouping, not a terror organization.Its branches around the Muslim world vary in their practices–and Qatar-sponsored Hamas in Gaza, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot–is definitely a terror organization, with dozens of suicide bomb attacks in Israel to prove it.

My own experience with the Brotherhood in Egypt is of a political Islamist group, not bomb-throwing terrorists. It failed to run Egypt properly in the year it was in power there, and that led to mass demonstrations against its president and the military coup that ousted it.

Parenthetically, why is it that these days people write about the military overthrowing the government in Egypt in 2013 without mentioning the millions of people on the streets demanding a change, as if one morning the military strongman, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, woke up, drank some coffee and decided, well, I think I’ll stage a coup today? Strange.

Likewise, anyone building an anti-terror coalition around Saudi Arabia really needs to know what they’re dealing with. Saudi Arabia still funds those extremist Wahhabi mosques and schools, nurturing the next generation of Islamist extremists and terrorists. So the Saudi-Qatar bust-up really is a matter of pots and kettles.