Here and there, there are signs that the United States is planning a large-scale military operation in Syria. The plans include combat operations against the Syrian army and its allies, such as the foreign pro-Iranian Shia militias and Hezbollah.
The White House said on June 26 it had reasons to believe the Syrian government is preparing another chemical weapons (CW) attack. The statement warned that the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad and his military would «pay a heavy price» if such an attack takes place. No specifics on the intelligence showing a chemical attack by the Syrian regime was imminent were provided. Nothing was said about what a US response such an attack would entail.
US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Twitter: «Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia and Iran who support him killing his own people». Neither the White House, nor Nikky Hailey explained in detail what prompted the warning.
The United States position has been supported by the UK government. According to UK Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, «If the Americans take similar action again, I want to be very clear - we will support it». Syria has denied the allegations that it may be preparing a chemical attack, insisting again that it has never used such arms.
The White House statement said preparations by Syria were similar to those undertaken before the April 4 chemical attack in Khan Sheikhun that killed dozens of civilians and prompted a cruise missile attack launched by US military on a Syrian airbase.
The strike was the toughest direct US action yet in the six-year-old civil war, raising the risk of confrontation with Syria, Russia and Iran. It should be noted that it has never been proven that the Syrian government was behind the CW attack. The United States has taken a series of actions over the past three months against Syrian government forces, demonstrating its willingness to carry out strikes against Damascus and its backers, including Iran.
As the Islamic State (IS) retreats, it leaves territory other players are now rushing to seize as any chunk of land could be useful as a bargaining chip in any peace settlement in Syria. As the race continues, the United States has hedged its bets on the SDF, the Kurds-dominated group operating in the north of Syria, and the area east of the Euphrates River. US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on June 27 that America will continue to provide weapons to Syrian Kurdish fighters after the battle to oust Islamic State militants from Raqqa, Syria, is over. In the south, America supports the Revolutionary Commando Army (RCA) trained by US and British special operators.
On May 18 and June 6, US aircraft delivered strikes against «pro-Syrian regime fighters» in an effort to draw red lines and protect what the American military believes to be its areas of influence inside Syria, which, in its view, should not be approached. In the south, the US established and then extended the area around al-Tanf.
In response to downing of Syrian warplane, Moscow said that military aircraft of the US-led coalition in Syria will be tracked and considered air targets.
During the 2016 election race, Donald Trump called his opponent, Hillary Clinton, «trigger happy». Today, the administration increased bombing in Syria to make a United Nations commission of inquiry conclude that coalition airstrikes have caused a «staggering loss of civilian life». The US-led coalition forces have reportedly bombed the besieged city of Raqqa with white phosphorous munitions prohibited by international law from use against civilians.
Under the current administration, America’s military delivers direct strikes against Syrian government forces, despite the fact that the Syrian government has never threatened the US, and Congress has not approved attacking it. Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, sharply condemned the attacks on Syrian government forces as «unconstitutional» and a «completely unlawful use of power».
If CW are really used in Syria, the United Nations should investigate and submit the results to the Security Council. A unilateral military strike may boost the president’s popularity at home for a certain period of time but it could also get the United States mired in a long conflict with no end in sight – just exactly what President Trump promised to prevent during the election campaign.
Evidently, the time of the warning was carefully chosen. The US is invited to take part in the Astana peace talks on Syria (July 4-5). The event will be followed by the Geneva round of UN-brokered talks to begin on July 10. An alleged use of CW may eclipse all other issues to hinder the crisis management process with the Syrian government supported by Russia. A strike would certainly spoil the relations with Moscow, while the possibility of Putin-Trump meeting at the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg is vigorously debated in the media.
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations or what form US retaliation would take. Several sources across the US State Department, Pentagon and Central Command, which oversees US military operations in Syria and Iraq, said that they did not know what had prompted the unprecedented threat to the Assad regime. According to The Atlantic, although US intelligence officers reportedly learned of several sites where the Assad regime could be hiding newly made chemical weapons, many are left wondering whether the response on June 26 was premature. Multiple US defense officials have since told BuzzFeed and The New York Times (NYT) that the latest warning caught them off guard.
So, the statement is not the result of effective team decision-making process. It can be surmised that some people near to the president influenced him without consulting key figures in the administration responsible for intelligence assessment and foreign policy decisions. It can be assumed that one of the goals is to hinder, spoil or prevent the first Putin-Trump meeting in Hamburg, Germany. Another reason is to push the United States to confrontation with Iran in a bid to head a powerful coalition Sunni Muslim states and, thus increase America’s influence in the region. Iran, not the Syrian government, appears to be the real target.
With the IS and other extremist groups defeated, the US-led forces may clash with Syrian government troops and their Iranian allies. The White House statement shows that there is an influential faction in the US government pushing for military action in Syria to get the country involved in a faraway war again. The peace talks and a Putin-Trump meeting are the ways to prevent the worse.