Syrians seem to have learned at last the most important lesson in geopolitics: when to be cynical about American intentions.
The Trump administration’s airstrikes on Bashar al-Assad’s Shayrat air base after Assad’s suspected use of the nerve agent sarin against the people of Khan Sheikhoun was followed by an instant round of jubilation among anti-Assad rebels and activists. Some took to referring to the Donald as Abu Ivanka al-Amriki, which literally means “Father of Ivanka, the American” in an admiring way.
Others named their restaurants after him in the liberated city of Kobane, no doubt prompting the Trump Organization’s legal team to dig up Arabic translations of its licensing-fee agreements. A Syrian-American friend who had campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008 but had grown increasingly frustrated, not to say more politically incorrect, with the passage of time and the murder of half a million of his countrymen texted “Orange is the new black” late on Thursday night as footage of the Tomahawks being fired from U.S. destroyers in the Mediterranean began airing on CNN and getting Brian Williams excited on MSNBC.
I’d seen a similar crescendo followed by a crashing anti-climax before, in September 2013, when it looked as if Obama really would retaliate for the regime’s use of sarin, that time in the East Ghouta suburb of Damascus. I had just gotten off a long trans-Atlantic flight in Istanbul, expecting to cover a war that never came. Instead, all the newspapers announced, there would be peace in our time. The U.S. president had rescued the country from another foolhardy intervention in a combustible region by striking a deal with his Russian counterpart to rid Syria of all of its stockpiles of chemical weapons. John Kerry would later go from comparing Assad to Hitler to praising him for his “professionalism” in de-proliferation, an assessment that looks slightly premature in hindsight. And so, my beat in southern Turkey changed to mapping the rebel reaction to this stark about-face.
Never have so many bearded men with guns gone from giddy and anticipatory to angry and resentful so quickly outside of an American Civil War re-enactment canceled due to weather. The United States, ran the mood within the Free Syrian Army barracks in Antakya, had betrayed us yet again. If gassing 1,400 couldn’t convince Obama to wage “unbelievably small” airstrikes against the perpetrator, as Kerry meekly put the case to Congress, nothing would. Now there was nothing left to do but fight by any means necessary, and to hell with America.
Jihadis, meanwhile, were understandably thrilled at the dejection experienced by their moderate counterparts because they’d been trying to convince the latter for years that America and NATO were not on their side in this fight. (A year later, ISIS would storm into Mosul, dashing Obama’s expectation that he’d be the first commander in chief to permanently reduce America’s “footprint” the Middle East.)
So, imagine my relief in discovering that the Syrian opposition has learned a thing or two about American exceptionalism since then.
Perhaps because Trump’s humanitarian intervention in Syria was over before anyone was sure it had even begun, many rebel fighters and media campaigners are refusing to be duped this time around. While it’s true that everyone who has suffered from the joint Baathist-Iranian-Russian extermination campaign indulges the possibility that Trump continues what he started, even U.S.-backed rebels aren’t quite ready to start writing checks they can’t cash on the battlefield.
“Up to this minute, there has been no change or increase in support from our allies,” Major Jamil Saleh, a commander in the Al Ezzeh Army, which operates in Idlib, Hama, and Homs provinces, told The Daily Beast on Monday. “Nobody has contacted us saying that there’s going to be any increase in support at all.”
Saleh noted that his men still receive regular supplies of TOW wire-guided anti-tank missiles, the signature weapon of the CIA’s “Operation Sycamore Timber,” or its (not so covert) program of arming of FSA groups. But the Ezzeh Army isn’t waiting on Washington to deliver anything else. A recent and so-far impressive rebel offensive in Hama is not because the U.S. has shifted policy; it’s because Assad has not, according to Saleh. “The morale of the fighters on the ground has gone up based on regime atrocities,” he said. “They have no choice but to fight to the death. They can’t risk losing.”
Most of these Syrians—pleased though they say they are to see anything at all done to impede Assad’s killing machine—are not overly impressed by the implied distinction between slaughter by chemicals and slaughter by any other of the myriad means available to the regime and its partners.
Bahaa al-Halabi, a media activist currently based in Aleppo province, put the point to The Daily Beast in starkly personal fashion: “My own father was martyred in an airstrike using internationally banned cluster munitions,” he wrote in a WhatsApp message Monday. “Was my father’s death normal because it wasn’t due to chemicals?”
Describing the general mood among locals in his neighborhood, al-Halabi said, “Honestly, the people no longer believe any promises… when strikes begin in an intense way on Assad’s bases, and those of the terrorist militias that support him, there will be great joy among the people.”
Similarly, Abdulkafi Alhamdo, an Idlib-based former resident of East Aleppo, which the regime, Russia, and Iran sacked two months ago, was interviewed by CNN last Friday. “What’s the benefit of such strikes?” he asked. “It’s a political message, yes. It’s a warning message, yes. But it’s really a popularity message. Trump is trying to have popularity with Americans by making these strikes…. But they didn’t achieve what Syrian civilians, what these innocent people, want.”
And Hadi al-Abdallah, an opposition-affiliated journalist who has survived numerous airstrikes and assassination attempts, conducted a video report from the ground in Khan Sheikhoun on Friday. None of the 20 or so residents he interviewed seemed under any illusions. One car driver told him, “We received this news with a sort of joy… but of course it’s not sufficient. We hope the international community will target all the airbases.” A man on a moped added: “They [the strikes] are good, but it won’t debilitate the regime, because it has numerous airbases.”
Two of Abdallah’s interviewees were conspicuously unimpressed. “What would affect the regime would be strikes either on the coast[…], the Hmeimim airbase, or Damascus,” argued the first. “The regime only struck with chemicals after getting a green light from Russia, and America didn’t strike the regime until it tipped off Russia; it’s something internal,” added the second, hewing quite close to the reporting that would emerge over the weekend.
“We hope it’s not theater, like in the past,” said another man. “Before this time, you saw the navy ships going to the Mediterranean as though they were going to strike the regime, and it all amounted to a lie. And this time it could be a lie again; just theater.” His message for Trump is unlikely to be heeded: “Don’t let it be theater, don’t lie to us…. We no longer have any trust in this world, all of it.”
Abdallah also helpfully carried out a poll on Twitter before the strikes, asking his mostly Arab followers: “With the escalation in American statements, do you expect an American strike to topple the Assad regime after the chemical massacre in Khan Sheikhoun?” Answers were: 43 percent “There will be limited strikes”; 37 percent “No”; and 20 percent “Yes”
The Pentagon deserves credit for managing expectations. It announced that the overnight bombing of one airbase was not a prelude to broader intervention but rather a “proportional response” and a “one-off,” albeit a one-off that appears to have reduced Assad’s operational aircraft capability by a fifth. A senior administration official told The Daily Beast Thursday that it hadn’t yet been “decided” in the White House if further military action will be taken against the regime, but clarified that the cruise-missile attack was designed to deter the use of chemical weapons only—not to necessarily stop Assad from his conventional means of mass murder and displacement.
Only Sean Spicer was able to turn Trump’s own red line into a Jackson Pollock painting. “If you gas a baby,” he said at his daily press conference Monday, “if you put a barrel bomb in to innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president.” Spicer mentioned barrel bombs three times, indicating that one of the most frequently used improvised munitions of Assad’s war was also now a game-changer, before adding that this government wasn’t going to “telegraph a response to every corresponding action because that tells the enemy what you’re going to do and whether or not that response is worth taking.”
Coming from the administration that informed Moscow and therefore Damascus of when and where the airstrikes were coming before it informed Congress, this means everything and nothing all at once. Swift came the clarification, too. Spicer was only referring to chlorine-laden barrel bombs, apparently.
Syrians are wise not to count on Abu Ivanka.
— With additional reporting by Alex Rowell