Week of April 20th, 2018

Think Tanks Activity Summary

(For further details, scroll down to the PUBLICATIONS section)

The Heritage Foundation asks why Assad felt emboldened to use gas. They note, “Assad has been able to bring the necessary resources to bear. Gas still isn’t a war winner, but he has found that, in a civil conflict, it’s a useful tool to cow potential rebels. And, of course, Assad’s use of gas provoked no deterrent response. President Barack Obama drew a red line in 2013 and failed to uphold it. To his credit, President Donald Trump launched a retaliatory strike in 2017, but that single attack did not have the desired effect. But what’s at stake goes beyond Syria. The best way to prevent epidemics is for everyone to be inoculated. If they’re not, diseases spread. The United States recognizes this. Since 1945, it has consistently opposed the proliferation of WMDs. But the more Assad uses gas, the more everyone sees gas as a viable weapon. The fading of the inoculation effect in Syria gives dictators facing rebellions an option that used to be unthinkable: Use gas. That’s not just bad for humanity or for Syria. It’s a defeat for the United States.”


The Carnegie Endowment looks at the growing cold war between the US and Russia in Syria. They conclude, “Even if the current standoff in Syria does not lead to the worst-case scenario becoming a reality, the U.S.-Russian situation will remain not only dire but essentially hopeless for the indefinite future. America’s approach toward Russia will likely consist of a methodical mounting of pressure on it in multiple domains — in anticipation that, at some point, the pressure will become unbearable for Moscow. The Kremlin, for its part, is adamant that it will not surrender, knowing that the adversary will be merciless even after its victory. The outcome, for now, is wide open. What’s clear is that periodic tests of will and resolve will continue to lead to international crises, whether in Syria, Ukraine, or elsewhere. Policymakers need to learn from their military subordinates: They should keep their heads cool and think of the consequences of their actions, both intended and unintended. Allowing the new U.S.-Russian global confrontation to run its course is much preferable to a sudden head-on crash.”


The Hudson Institute says Trump should use his skills as a “dealer” when constructing a Syrian policy. They conclude, “Going forward, Mr. Trump should stick to his campaign promise and keep mum about his plans. Meantime, he should reconsider his intention to withdraw. As it is, the United States has a small footprint in Syria — an estimated 2,000 troops. The right strategy could reduce those numbers further while gaining even more of that precious commodity over Iran and Russia: leverage.”


The Washington Institute looks at the tactical issues surrounding US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. President Trump might decide by the May 12 deadline not to extend the sanctions waivers, effectively withdrawing the United States from the deal. In reality, however, reimposing sanctions is not a simple flip of a switch: the process requires numerous steps without which withdrawal would have little meaning. This report by distinguished Iran expert Patrick Clawson outlines the options available to the administration should it choose to terminate its cooperation with JCPOA provisions, and the technical, legal, and administrative considerations related to reimplementation of sanctions.


The American Enterprise Institute says Trump’s attack in Syria didn’t project strength. They conclude, “News reports indicate that Trump wanted a more robust response but faced resistance from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the same man who has resisted giving Trump robust military options for North Korea. If accurate, Mattis did the president a great disservice by scaling down his desired Syrian response. The president’s desire is to project strength on the world stage. Under Mattis’s apparent guidance, he did the opposite. As a result, Trump is weakened going into his summit with Kim. If Trump had taken no action, it would have been worse — but not by much. Because when you carry out strikes “just muscular enough not to get mocked,” you are projecting weakness — and weakness is provocative.”


The Heritage Foundation says the missile attack against Syria’s chemical weapons facilities was appropriate. They conclude, “Regime change is a bridge too far. Once crossing it, the Trump administration would inherit the responsibility to spend more blood and treasure to cobble together the broken pieces of a failed state infested with hundreds of fractious militias, many of them fiercely anti-American. While Assad has lost all legitimacy as the leader of Syria, his eventual removal from power should be a long-term diplomatic goal, not a military goal. The primary U.S. military mission in Syria should remain the defeat of the Islamic State, or ISIS.  Until the coffin is nailed shut on ISIS, U.S. military forces must remain actively engaged in finishing the job. But as long as Assad remains in power, Washington must remain vigilant in punishing and deterring the use of chemical weapons.”



 Questions Still Surround Strike Against Syria

After a major strike against three so-called chemical weapons (CW) facilities in Syria last week, there remain several unanswered questions.

The first is, “What is the American strategy concerning Syria?” Empty buildings in the middle of the night are useful targets if you want to demonstrate symbolic disapproval, most US observers were critical of Trump stating that “the strikes did not do lasting damage to the Assad regime or his CW capability”.

So, they asked was the goal to make a point: Don’t do that again?

Some of Trump supporters say the issue was humanitarian. Trump has expressed justifiable horror in response to the use of chemical weapons. In announcing the bombings, he laid out the rationale for the attacks: “To deter the use and proliferation of chemical weapons, and to avert a worsening of the region’s current humanitarian catastrophe.” The British government was more explicit, stating that the “intervention was directed exclusively to averting a humanitarian catastrophe.”

But what catastrophe did they avert? The chemical attack, as far as they claimed, had already happened.

Chemical weapons are a moral horror and enforcing the near-century-old ban on them can be justified on humanitarian grounds. But when you talk to experts about why we should enforce the ban, the argument quickly turns to realpolitik: “We don’t want chemical weapons used on our troops or civilians.”

“This very easily could happen in the United States if we’re not smart, and if we’re not conscious of what’s happening,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on “Fox News Sunday.”

It’s the same logic America uses for preventing what they label “rogue regimes” from developing nuclear weapons.

But that argument has little to do with humanitarianism according to others. “America has said only that if President Assad uses chemical weapons, he will pay a price”.

The result is an incoherent message.

The mixed message is due to the differing views on the Syrian war inside the US. As a candidate Trump made it clear he wanted to withdraw from Syria, a sentiment he reechoed a few weeks ago.

It’s also a view shared by many Trump supporters. Americans traditionally do not like constant war or military interventions, particularly “humanitarian” ones. They prefer to intervene when necessary, “kill the bad guys, then come back home,” what is called a “Jacksonian” foreign policy (named after President Andrew Jackson).

However, there are many inside Washington (and the Trump Administration) who want a more aggressive policy towards Syria, including the removal of President Assad and the elimination of Iranian influence in Syria.

That view was also shared by French President Emmanuel Macron Saturday, who said, “We convinced him [Trump] it was necessary to stay for the long term.”

On Tuesday, Macron suggested during an address to the European parliament that the missile strikes likely did not “resolve anything” in the region but were nevertheless “important” for preserving the ‘honor of the international community.’

“Those who are shocked by images of women, of children who have been attacked by chlorine, we need to stand up to defend our rights. What are we going to say, our rights and principles are just for us? No, that simply isn’t acceptable,” Macron said,

The Israelis also seemed to concur as Israeli jets launched a predawn missile raid on the Iranian drone’s T4 home base last Monday. Israel killed seven Iranian Quds Force members, including Col. Mehdi Dehghan, who led the drone unit.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated that Israel fully supported Trump’s decision to act against Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and added that Jerusalem welcomed the French and British participation in the mission.

Many in Washington see the Syrian conflict as a major front in the war against Iran. They believe that by continuing the attacks, it “forces Iran to keep forces in Syria – forces that could be better employed to control the internal unrest in Iran. It also forces Iran to spend money and further depress its economy on supporting Syria’s Assad and Yemeni rebels”.

The rational seems eerily similar to arguments for the continued American presence in Vietnam.

This conflict of policies leaves Trump in a quandary. Does he follow his instincts and reap the condemnation of the neocons or does he take the route that guarantees the approval of his opponents.

To the dismay of Trump’s supporters, he went for the approval of his opponents.

The other problem is the alleged chemical incident itself. The claims are that the attack was conducted with chlorine, not a nerve agent like sarin (based on footage circulated by accusers hosing alleged victims with water). Chlorine is a common gas used in many industrial and critical applications like water purification. Consequently, it is easy to acquire and simple to carry out an attack with.

However, this is one reason why many question the story of the chlorine attack almost everywhere in the world and in the west.

To give some idea of historical background, in World War One, chlorine attacks were unreliable and were eventually discontinued in 1917. Artillery shells filled with chlorine were ineffective because the gas dispersed too quickly.

The only way to employ chlorine effectively was in a massed attack like the one carried out by the Germans in 1915 at Ypres.   In that attack, 6,000 large tanks of chlorine were used to create a massive wall of the gas. Although the attack succeeded as allied forces retreated, troops quickly discovered that a cloth soaked in water or urine could counteract the effects. The result was that this massed attack killed only about 1,000 troops (about one killed per six tanks of gas).

The Germans also discovered the logistical problems of chlorine gas attacks. The 6,000 gas tanks used were one half of all the compressed gas tanks available in all of Germany. And, placing the tanks along the front took weeks.

Eventually the Germans discovered that they needed one large compressed gas tank per one meter of the front.

Clearly, the experiences of WWI proved that chlorine was a poor weapon. That makes the chlorine attack more likely to be a false flag event than a serious weapon to attack rebels. It also calls into question the number of casualties caused by the attack – a number that is quite large in contrast to the poor results of chlorine attacks in WWI.

However, the chlorine attack wasn’t the only attack whose efficacy was questioned. Syria and Russia both claimed that the allied missile attack was a failure because most of the missiles were intercepted by Syria’s air defense system.

While the US claimed that Syria fired 40 air defense missiles and hit nothing, Russia claimed that the Syrian missiles had a 67% kill ratio. In a press conference, the Russians insisted that the damage shown in the satellite photos was way less than that caused by over 100 missiles.

However, the one fact that leads many to question the Russian claims is that no photos of “shot down” cruise missiles has been made public. Many also question how Cold War era air defense missiles designed nearly half a century ago were able to shoot down new cruise missiles with stealth technology – something the Syria air defense system has not been upgraded to counter. It was disclosed by Pentagon briefer Thursday that JASSM missile employed in the attack were old version not new as Trump claimed).

One American analyst who disputed the Russian assertion explained, “The Russians didn’t address the fact that many of the missiles came from the east (Red Sea and Arabian Gulf), which meant they avoided much of the Syrian air defense system, which is oriented towards the West and Israel”.


Is the President Authorized to Bomb Syria?

Five years ago, when Obama attacked Syria, Donald Trump put out a tweet that many of his opponents agree with.

“The president must get congressional approval before attacking Syria — big mistake if he does not!” Trump said.

Yet, Trump used the same anti-terrorist authorization that Obama used to bomb Syria.

It’s been reported that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis urged President Trump to get congressional approval before the United States launched airstrikes against Syria last week, but was overruled by Mr. Trump, who wanted a rapid and dramatic response.

Given the slow pace of Congress to pass any legislation, Trump’s concern was real. Anyone who bets on the slow pace of the American Congress is likely to be right.

The powers granted to the president are very clear in the Constitution. The president is the Commander-in-Chief, but Congress has the power to declare war and to fund the war.

However, in reality, presidents have stretched that power for centuries. There was an undeclared war between the US and France during the Napoleonic wars in the 1790s. Franklin Roosevelt had virtually declared war on German submarines months before the US declared war. There are also the examples of Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, etc. In every case, the president’s opposition has claimed that Congress should authorize the action – only to forget the argument when their party took the White House.

Although many in Congress complained about Trump’s decision to attack without express permission, there is little effort being spent to stop Trump or any other future president. Resending the president’s permission to use the current legislation, designed to attack terrorists like al Qaeda, would force them to set new limits and take the blame if anything bad happens. There’s also the political reality that both the House and Senate would have to muster 2/3 majority votes to overcome a presidential veto.

In other words, despite the criticism, Trump and future presidents will continue to use the current Congressional authorization (no matter how obsolete) as justification to carry out agression in the Middle East.



Why Syria Felt Emboldened to Use Deadly Gas

By Theodore R. Bromund

Heritage Foundation

April 17, 2018

Despite their fearsome reputation, most weapons of mass destruction — even the conventional ones — are not used often. Like a vaccine, their first use seems to inoculate the world against further uses. But in Syria — struck by Western missiles early Saturday — the inoculation effect against poison gas has been failing. And so is the U.S. policy that contributed to it. Looking at history, the pattern is striking: The first major use tends to be the last one, or at least the biggest one. Atomic bombs were used to end World War II. That war saw the only large-scale conventional air raids on cities — first by Nazi Germany, and then the Anglo-American powers. Biological weapons have been absent from the battlefield. So far, anthrax has been used only in the terror attacks in the United States after 9/11. Even poison gas, the easiest WMD to make, was used more in World War I than since.

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Trump’s Second Missile Strike Against Syria’s Chemical Weapons Both Appropriate

By James Phillips

Heritage Foundation

April 17, 2018

By launching airstrikes against Syrian chemical warfare facilities, President Donald Trump reinforced the U.S. red line against the use of chemical weapons without expanding the military mission in Syria beyond the longstanding commitment to defeat ISIS. The strikes Friday night were a necessary, appropriate, and carefully calibrated response to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of illegal chemical weapons. Assad had agreed to give up such weapons in a 2013 pact brokered by Russia, which guaranteed those weapons would not be used again in Syria. At the time, Heritage Foundation analysts lambasted the agreement as “imprecise, unrealistic, and unlikely to be fulfilled.”

Moscow not only has failed to abide by its 2013 diplomatic commitment, but it has vetoed six U.N. Security Council resolutions on the issue.

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The New Cold War Is Boiling Over in Syria


Carnegie Endowment

April 14, 2018

António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, recently said the Cold War was back with a vengeance but also with a difference. This is correct but belatedly so. The new confrontation between Russia and the United States started already in 2014 and has been intensifying ever since, culminating in Friday evening’s U.S.-led strikes on Syria, which the Trump administration blamed on the Syrian government and its Russian allies and vowed to sustain indefinitely, if it deemed necessary. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded, in turn, that the attacks were an “act of aggression” that would “have a destructive effect on the entire system of international relations.” The new confrontation between Russia and the United States has thus reached its first “missile crisis” moment. The way it is handled — whether it produces a direct military collision between the armed forces of the United States and Russia — will matter gravely for the entire world.

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Tactical Issues Surrounding a U.S. Withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Agreement

By Patrick Clawson

Washington Institute

April 2018


President Trump has long signaled his distaste for the JCPOA. He warned in January that absent improvements to the Iran nuclear agreement, he might decide by the May 12 deadline not to extend the sanctions waivers, effectively withdrawing the United States from the deal. In reality, however, reimposing sanctions is not a simple flip of a switch: the process requires numerous steps without which withdrawal would have little meaning. This report by distinguished Iran expert Patrick Clawson outlines the options available to the administration should it choose to terminate its cooperation with JCPOA provisions, and the technical, legal, and administrative considerations related to reimplementation of sanctions.

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Trump’s Syria strike was meant to project strength. It did the opposite.

By Marc A. Thiessen

American Enterprise Institute

April 16, 2018

In 2013, after Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad crossed President Barack Obama’s red line and used chemical weapons on innocent civilians, a U.S. official told the Los Angeles Times that Obama’s retaliatory strike would likely be “just muscular enough not to get mocked” but not so devastating that it would elicit a response from Iran and Russia. In the end, Obama backed away from even such a small, feckless strike. On Friday, Trump carried one out. Trump deserves credit for acting (now twice) when Obama wouldn’t. He also deserves credit for getting U.S. allies to join us when Obama couldn’t. But let’s be clear: Friday night’s strikes were “just muscular enough not to get mocked.” As a result, they did more damage to the United States’ credibility on the world stage than they did to the Assad regime.

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Trump Needs to Be More Trumpian in Syria

By Michael Doran

Hudson Institute

April 10, 2018

The United States will be making an exit from Syria “very soon,” President Trump said late last month in Ohio. “Let the other people take care of it now.” In making this announcement, the president ignored a cardinal principle of an author he holds in very high regard: himself. According to “The Art of the Deal,” Mr. Trump’s 1987 best-selling guide to business strategy, success in negotiations requires developing leverage. The crux of the matter is appearing unflappable while making the other guy sweat. “The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it,” Mr. Trump wrote. “That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead.” Mr. Trump’s Syria announcement fostered the impression of a president desperate to get out of the Middle East. It also violated another oft-repeated Trumpian principle: never, ever telegraph your military moves. “I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is,” Mr. Trump said during the 2016 presidential campaign.

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Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor