John Bolton: Syria Is a ‘Sideshow’

Trump’s new national security adviser has been ambivalent over the years about the importance of the Syrian civil war. The real threat, he’s long argued, comes from Iran.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

President Trump appears to be gearing up to bomb Syria, but his new national security adviser has said he believes Syria to be something of a “sideshow.”

It’s only John Bolton’s first week on the job as Trump’s national security adviser and all eyes are on him for clues about how the administration will respond to the apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria. So far, there have been just a few tea leaves to read in his 48-hour tenure in the White House. But before that Bolton left a slew of op-eds and Fox News appearances offering some clues to his views on the war there.

The picture that emerges from his commentary is of a hawk who accepts much of the conservative catechism on Syria but hasn’t great enthusiasm for it.

“I believe since the Syrian civil war broke out nearly seven years ago that the subject of Syria is, sadly, tragic though it might be, is a sideshow in terms of the bigger strategic picture in the Middle East,” Bolton said on Fox in February, using his preferred epithet for the conflict.

The subject of Syria is, sadly, tragic though it might be, is a sideshow in terms of the bigger strategic picture in the Middle East.
John Bolton

While many of his ideological fellow travelers have argued that Assad is the primary problem causing Syria’s many conflicts, Bolton instead posited that the dictator of Damascus was at best a tertiary concern, ranking him “a distant third” behind Iran and ISIS in terms threats to the region. “If you want to know where to go to at least resolve the bulk of the problems we face,” he told Fox’s Martha MacCallum, “it’s not getting rid of Assad in Syria. It’s getting rid of the ayatollahs in Tehran.”

The Trump administration hasn’t made regime change in Iran its policy, but Bolton’s hawkish views toward Tehran are likely to find a receptive audience with the president, particularly around the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has labeled the agreement the “worst deal ever” and Bolton’s argument to undo it may have already won the day before the newly appointed national security adviser stepped into the White House. While James Mattis supports the Iran deal, the defense secretary, long considered an Iran hawk, may find common cause with Bolton over the shared goal of rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East.

Bolton supported the last round of strikes on Syria and seems inclined to do so again, but his Syria commentary paints a picture of a man who comes to the White House with a preference to focus on regime change in Tehran rather than deal with the thorny problems in Damascus.

One of Bolton’s lengthiest discussions of Syria policy came in a 2012 National Review piece where he declared that “regime change in Syria is prima facie in America’s interest as well as the interests of Israel and our Arab friends in the region.”

Still, even at that early stage in the civil war, Bolton was already showing signs of hesitancy, cautioning that the possibility of Assad’s removal was now “much more remote.” The optimal time for regime change, in his view, had been shortly after the invasion of Iraq, when the U.S. had more forces built up nearby and Assad’s allies had fewer.

By 2012, Bolton had already lost confidence that there was a sufficiently sized rebel force free of the influence of al Qaeda or other jihadist groups that could bring about a post-Assad Syria to America’s liking. As others called for urgent support to the opposition, he was more circumspect, saying the U.S. should hold off until it could be assured regime change would happen “when—and only when—it becomes feasible on our terms.”

Since then, the Islamist groups that made Bolton so wary in 2012 have grown in influence and Bolton’s comfort with Syria’s opposition as a tool of U.S. foreign policy has waned further. “I think we need more Arab forces from the Gulf states, from Egypt, from Jordan, and less reliance on some of the dubious Syrian groups,” he told the Journal Editorial Report in 2017.

So what would Bolton do about the apparent chemical attack in Douma? He did support strikes by the Trump administration under similar circumstances in the wake of the Assad regime’s nerve agent attack on Khan Sheikhoun.

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The day before the Trump administration launched a cruise missile attack on Shayrat Air Base in Syria, Bolton called on Trump to “eliminate Syria’s Air Force” and “tell the Russians to clear out of that airbase so they don’t become Assad’s Air Force” After the strikes, he high-fived Trump and called the strikes “very measured, very precise, had a very limited rationale because of the use of chemical weapons, but very effective.”

But as he noted, support for striking Syria after it violated a president’s red line on chemical weapons represented “a shift” toward a policy “I haven’t favored that before.” In 2013, when Obama asked Congress for authority for the use of force following Syria’s use of chemical weapons, Bolton wrote that “on policy grounds that Obama is wrong to use force in Syria.”

Beyond a strike in response to violations of Trump’s stated chemical weapons red lines, it’s not clear that Bolton is eager to dwell on Syria policy. To him, Syria is not so much a humanitarian problem to be approached on its own terms but a broader problem about the growth of Iranian and Russian influence in the Middle East better addressed by confrontation elsewhere.

The zeal for confrontation with Iran, however, may not go down well in the Defense Department, where commanders are trying to clean up the remnants of ISIS while maintaining a tense standoff against Russian, Iranian, and Assad regime forces. “He’ll soon find out that the U.S. has 12,000 troops that could be targeted if he gets too cute, and that a side fight with Iranian militias isn’t exactly something the Pentagon wants to take on at this moment in time,” says Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Bolton’s sentiment of Syria-as-sideshow, oddly enough, has some echoes to President Obama’s approach to the conflict. Obama, too, viewed Syria as nettlesome distraction in his attempts to pivot toward other strategic priorities he viewed as more pressing. But Syria has an annoying habit of intruding on how statesmen, Republican or Democratic, would otherwise prefer to spend their time. And Obama ended up sending troops to the country and weapons to its rebels, much to his evident unease.

So far it’s been easy for Bolton to dismiss Syria’s relevance from the comfort of a pundit’s chair and punt on questions about policy by substituting his hawkish policy preferences for Iran. Punting from a perch in the White House, as the day-to-day dilemmas of American policy in Syria pile up, will likely prove much harder.