The narrative since the air strikes on Friday has been that the hawks have become ascendant in Donald Trump’s Washington. Isolationists have sobbed about betrayal as the mood turns at least Scowcroftian in the Beltway, if not downright Cheneyesque. Not all hawks are in a celebratory mood, however. Earlier today, Sen. Lindsey Graham told Hugh Hewitt that the strikes were nothing more than a “missed opportunity,” and that Trump and his generals seem inclined to leave Syria in the hands of Iran rather than stand up to Russia:
Asked about the president’s response to the attacks in Syria during a radio interview on “The Hugh Hewitt Show,” Graham griped that his actions “didn’t lay a glove on Assad’s capabilities to wage war.”
“We’re becoming the chemical weapons police,” Graham said. “We don’t have a strategy about why Syria matters.”
He added: “The military strike itself was a tactical response well short of what I thought was justified. So he’s been a good commander-in-chief in general, but this is a major step backwards.”
In the longer transcript, Graham lays the blame on Secretary of Defense James Mattis for the narrow focus on chemical weapons. The issue, Graham claims, is the risk-averse nature of current military and political leadership. Er, what?
LG: They’re completely risk averse when it comes to creating a military capability to deal with Assad. Our mission is limited to destroying ISIS. We have no counter-Iran strategy. What I am telling you and others is you’ll never destroy ISIS as long as Iran is the dominant player inside of Syria, because they can recruit throughout the Arab world to fight the Iranians. And all I’m asking is that we train up Syrians who are willing to fight to take the fight to Assad, tell Russia and Iran you fight for Assad at your own peril, then go to Geneva and get a peace agreement where you have some leverage. But our military position regarding Russia and Iran is to give Syria to them. We’re not going to contest Syria. That’s a nightmare for Israel. That’ll be a nightmare for Lebanon and Jordan. And this is where Mattis and Dunford have always resisted any effort to push back against the Russians and the Iranians.
HH: Now Senator Graham, I’m the last guy to ask this, because I’m not even an armchair general. I’m like a barstool general. I’m a civilian’s civilian. But as I saw airstrikes from Israel last week, and again on Saturday night, against Iranian positions, especially the drone headquarters, I thought to myself this thing is going to go up sooner rather than later, and that all of our positioning has got to be against the day when Iran and Israel come to blows. Am I wrong to think that?
LG: No, no, so, so here’s the next big conflict. There’s two conflicts you can watch for. As we withdraw, as we confuse people about what we’re going to do in Syria, Turkey is going to take that as a sign that we’re not going to stay and help the Kurds. So you’re going to see more incursions about Manjeb by Turkey, and maybe Assad. So the Kurds are going to feel pressure. But the real fight to come is when Israel has to go deeper into Syria more often to stop the weapon flows from Syria down to Lebanon. The spark that will start the war is going to come from South Lebanon. South Lebanon is a missile factory pointed at Israel. Hezbollah has 160,000 missiles and rockets coming from Iran pointed at Israel. Now just add Syria to the equation. If the Iranians are embedded in Syria with Hezbollah elements, they basically have a land bridge now between Tehran and Beirut. And Israel, that’s a nightmare for them.
Graham’s right about the Turk/Kurd fight, which isn’t just on the horizon, it has actually arrived. He’s also right about the Syrian-Iranian “land bridge,” an asset that our 2011 withdrawal from Iraq largely enabled. Once we abandoned the Sunnis by taking pressure off Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi PM purged them from the military and the government, which prompted a rebellion that inflamed the Sunni extremists in the al-Qaeda in Iraq remainders. Their rapid success forced Iraq to rely on Iranian forces and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias to finally crush ISIS in the west, establishing Iranian reach across Iraq and into Syria.
Unfortunately, that leaves us with few options short of all-out war with Syria, Iran, and Russia. Neither Russia nor Iran would stand idly by while the US struck at Assad’s command and control, at least partly because it would put their own forces in peril of attack. A remote coup d’etat would likely be worse than the current status quo even if it didn’t result in a shooting war with Assad’s allies; we just need to look at Libya to remind us how that worked out. And if we land troops in western Syria to attempt to control the outcome and avoid the Libyan failed-state outcome, presto! We’re in a land war in Asia against one world power and a regional hegemon.
The reason why Mattis is risk averse is because the risk of things getting out of control is (a) very real and (b) very high. At this point, the best we can do is to let Assad and Vladimir Putin worry that Trump might be dangerous enough to touch off a war. They got surprised last Friday. That, for now, has to be enough.