April 12, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, Dan De Luce, Dion Nissenbaum

Deep Dish: What's at Stake in Syria Strike

The world waits with bated breath as President Trump mulls a response to Syria's suspected chemical attack. Foreign Policy’s Dan De Luce and The Wall Street Journal’s Dion Nissenbaum join this week’s Deep Dish to weigh the president's options. To strike would risk provoking Russian retaliation and the risk of a great power conflict. To do nothing would look weak and cowardly on the international stage. Neither seem to be palatable for the United States president. 



[Dan De Luce: Yes. I mean, the presence of Russian forces on the ground and Russian aircraft creates a massively difficult, complicating aspect to this.

Dion Nissenbaum: So, it's not that difficult for Russian planes to, quote unquote, accidentally bomb U.S. forces that are operating in that area.

Brian Hanson: Does the president have the authority to be able to carry out an attack?]

Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today we're talking about the poison gas attack in Syria and possible U.S. responses. In this conversation, I am joined by Dan De Luce, who is the chief national security correspondent of Foreign Policy. Welcome, Dan. It's good to have you here.

Dan De Luce: Thank you.

Brian Hanson: Dan joined Foreign Policy after working as a Pentagon correspondent for Agence France Press. Prior to that, Dan reported for the Guardian from Iran until he was expelled by the regime in 2004. Also part of this conversation is Dion Nissenbaum, who is a national security reporter covering defense and the Pentagon for the Wall Street Journal. Welcome, Dion. It's good to have you here.

Dion Nissenbaum: Thanks for having me.

Brian Hanson: He's also covered conflicts in many countries around south Asia and the Middle East, and is now in D.C. to cover the Pentagon. I understand formerly also based in Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Kabul.

So, you guys are great to have to talk about this issue. Also, as our listeners notice, there's a rapidly evolving development. We are reporting on Thursday morning, and when we had our production meeting on Monday to talk about this topic, and say, "We ought to talk about Thursday, because by Thursday there will have been a U.S. response," there still has not been at this point. When our listeners hear this, they should know that we're having this conversation before action was taken.

Let me just set this up quickly. As people know, on Saturday, April 7th, the news broke to the world of bombs being dropped in Syria that contained chemical agents. The reports really came from hospitals that were treating people who were victims of the attack, and there were reports of more than 500 people who had symptoms of exposure to the chemical agent. Now, the Syrian government has denied that they committed this attack, but they're probably the only ones who could have done it.

What we really want to focus on is the U.S. response to this attack. As people will recall, about a year ago, in response to another Syrian attack, President Trump authorized missile strikes on an airstrip in Syria. We have now a new attack, and a president who has tweeted all over the place in terms of there being a response, how quickly it might come.

Let me start off, if I can, Dan, with you. What is your sense of what are the possible responses of the Trump administration? What kind of action is being considered in response to this attack?

Dan De Luce: It's a strange situation, because as you say, a year ago there was a similar dilemma or incident where chemical weapons were used by the Syrian regime, and Trump ordered a kind of retaliatory, limited airstrike using Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from afar, without putting pilots at risk and fighter jets. Dozens of Tomahawks came down, but Syria soon was using that same airfield that was hit, and was in due course once again using chlorine and chemical weapons. The options are some kind of airstrikes, missile strikes again, but then the dilemma that the White House has is what we did last time didn't seem to deter the regime. Then the question then becomes, how much more pain needs to be inflicted on the regime to try to deter them?

Then also, it's not just what weapons you use, and how many targets you hit, and then how many days does the attack last. Is it something that goes on beyond a day? Then, of course, your allies and partners may join in, probably Britain and France. There's speculation they'll probably join in, possibly others, Saudi Arabia. Then there's the other question, which is, what do you say about it? Do you say, "We're going to continue to strike every time the regime uses chemical weapons?" You somehow reserve the right to do that? Do they go even beyond that, and somehow use troops on the ground, even, to go after some targets, to somehow try to disable the regime's ability to use chemical weapons? It's this range. There's plenty of weapons. There are plenty of military options, but there's also a kind of massive question hanging over it, which is, to what end? What are you trying to accomplish? If this doesn't work, then what?

Brian Hanson: That's a good place to build on. Dion, what's your sense of why this is taking so long for there to be a response? Trump's initial tweet seemed to imply that there would be a very rapid response. Last time, a year ago, it was within about 48 hours there was action taken. Why is this process taking longer?

Dion Nissenbaum: There's a number of reasons for it. One is it's taken a while for the U.S. and its allies to develop enough evidence that they are confident that it was indeed a chemical weapons attack. The area that was hit outside of Damascus is surrounded by the Assad regime, so it's not as easy to get evidence out. We're starting to pick up indications now that they've got new samples that show that a nerve agent was used. French President Macron said today that they do have the proof.

The other thing is that the U.S. and its allies need to get their ships into place in the eastern Mediterranean to carry out the strike. There is, as Dan said, a debate here in Washington over what the intent of the strike should be. Everybody here seems to agree that the strike last year hadn't done what it intended to in deterring Syria from using these chemical weapons again. We can maybe talk a little bit later about President Trump's talk about withdrawing from Syria and what impact that may have had on Assad's decision to use chemical weapons.

A real complicating factor for the U.S. is the presence of Russian forces in Syria. Syrian forces are intermingled with Russian forces and Iranian forces around the country. If the White House wants a more expansive attack, there's a lot of talk about trying to essentially cripple his ability to carry out chemical weapons attacks, so that would be multiple targets around the country, suspected chemical weapons storage sites. There's not a lot of those, but they would just try and hit a number of targets, but they also need to try and not kill Russians, essentially. Because they are intermingled, and because the Syrian regime is actually moving some of its planes to Russian bases with significant air defenses, it creates a real conundrum.

The resistance you're hearing is coming from the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Mattis was on the Hill testifying on a separate hearing, and talking about the need to be cautious with this, and not have it get out of control, and spark a broader war with Russia. Russia has sent a lot of belligerent messaging that it won't allow this kind of strike, and that it's going to try and knock down cruise missiles. This is the crux of the debate as I understand it right now.

Brian Hanson: Let's play this out a little bit. What happens if a Russian soldier were killed, or they take offense? In practical terms, spell out what kinds of responses might emerge, either one of you.

Dion Nissenbaum: I think the biggest concern is we have 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, prominently in northeastern Syria where they're working with Kurds to fight against Islamic State. There have been some significant clashes with Russian mercenaries up there that the U.S. has had to beat back. It's not that difficult for Russian planes to, quote unquote, accidentally bomb U.S. forces that are operating in that area. There was a Russian ambassador, I believe the Russian ambassador to Lebanon, earlier this week suggested they might even try and hit the U.S. naval ships that would be off in the eastern Mediterranean firing the missiles. That seems probably like a bridge too far, but they certainly are threatening that. Dan may have some other thoughts about where else they can hit.

Dan De Luce: Yeah. What's true is that the vulnerable underbelly of the U.S. side in this are those 2,000 special operations forces, mainly, on the ground in Syria that have been advising and even fighting alongside the mainly Kurdish forces. That's not a very large force, and that's a pretty chaotic battlefield. That's one place where Russia and/or Iran could retaliate.

The other option the Russians could have is use contractors. In this incident that we're talking about here earlier, it was Russian contractors who were involved in an attack on a U.S. position. It gave Moscow kind of, sort of plausible deniability. Putin doesn't have to bring Russian soldiers in uniforms home in body bags, so that's a little lower-risk for Russia. That's one kind of realistic option.

Yes, the presence of Russian forces on the ground and Russian aircraft creates a massively difficult, complicating aspect to this. It increases the risk of some kind of unforeseen escalation. It clearly was what Secretary Mattis was referring to today in his testimony, where he said, "We want to make sure that this situation doesn't escalate out of control." He used that phrase. That's clearly on the minds of Mattis and others as they try to figure out how to calibrate the strike and an action that somehow deters the Assad regime without igniting a wider chaotic conflict.

Brian Hanson: I'm sure military planners are being very careful about not revealing what's being considered, but I'm curious if in your reporting and talking to people, you have gotten a sense of what kinds of things that could be done to try to get around the problems of implicating or affecting Russians killing Russians. As you pointed out earlier, the longer it takes, the more time there is for Syrian forces and military assets to be intermingled with Russian, Iranian, and other troops that make this conflict more complex. Do you have a sense if there are any particular kinds of techniques or approaches that are being considered to get around this?

Dan De Luce: Sorry. That's me, I guess. One way to judge that is to look at what they did last time as a guide. They do have a channel open to the Russians and the Russian military to deconflict operations, so that they at least give each other some warning about, "Okay, our forces are in this area," so that the other side doesn't fly over there or move into that area. It's a pretty tentative dialogue, certainly not very cordial, but if the U.S. launches Tomahawk missiles the way most people expect they will, from ships in the Mediterranean, then the question is what do you target to avoid escalating, entering into a conflict directly with Russia. You'd probably want to steer very clear of where the Russians are known to be, and they have their bases there that they've set up, and that they've had. Of course, then also you run the risk of not hitting the regime sufficiently hard enough to do any damage to their chemical weapons capability.

Dion Nissenbaum: Yeah, Dan. Remember last year when this happened, the U.S. military used that hotline to warn the Russians that were at that base, basically, "Don't leave your compound." There were a small number of Russians at the airfield that they hit last year, and they gave them I think less than an hour's notice, and basically told them, "Don't leave your compounds," and we hit other sites. We hit hangars at that facility. The Russians have said that they expect the U.S. to give them the coordinates for the strike, but that's going to be complicated this time because Russia is threatening to retaliate, and because Syria has moved some of its aircraft to these Russian bases that have significant air defenses. It's going to be more challenging than it was a year ago.

They do know where the Russians operate. They know what bases they're on. As Dan said, if they want to have a significant hit, and a more significant hit than last year, they are going to want to hit more targets. This is where you've got the challenge, and where you've got the Pentagon pushing back and saying, "We need to be very careful about where we hit and when we hit." This is, I think, very much the heart of the debate here that's still ongoing in Washington, and it's one of the reasons why we still haven't seen the strike.

Brian Hanson: You guys have clearly mapped out that there's a lot at stake, and that an action could have unintended consequences that could have real impacts. One of the Deep Dish listeners wrote into our Facebook group with a question. I think it's an important question in this context. John wrote, "Why should Trump be allowed any action without formal declaration of war from Congress?" I remember one of the things Barack Obama said when he was confronted with a chemical attack is, "I don't have authorization to do this," and he kicked it over to Congress, and got criticized by many for doing that. Does the president have the authority to be able to carry out an attack, or is John on target? What's the role of Congress in this?

Dion Nissenbaum: It is definitely an overarching question that came up in the hearings this morning with the defense secretary, and also with Mike Pompeo in his hearing to be the next secretary of state, and leaving the CIA. For more than a decade now, the U.S. government of the different parties have used this broad, overarching anti-Al Qaeda authorization to use force extremely broadly. There's criticism from people from both parties over that, and there have been failed efforts over the years to try and establish a new authorization for the use of military force.

It came up again this morning. I think Secretary Mattis, the defense secretary, this morning argued that because the U.S. has American troops in Syria, that we can't wait for Assad to use chemical weapons on them to strike, and again used this very, very broad understanding about the authorization of the use of force to argue that the president has the right to strike. I think the weight of the evidence suggests that it's at the very best questionable, but you also don't have a Congress that is willing to stand up and challenge the president on such a significant national security issue.

Dan De Luce: Yeah, exactly. This is a long-festering problem, and some would say a kind of political and maybe constitutional failure that's been building for decades, dating back to Vietnam or arguably before then, even. The way our system has evolved after World War Two, the executive branch, the president has become very powerful in the realm of national security and the military. It's become customary for U.S. presidents to launch military actions, especially involving airpower, without getting some kind of authorization from Congress.

Of course, after Vietnam, there's the War Powers Act that tried to impose more rules on the executive branch to be more accountable. After a certain period of time, they do need to get authorization, but it's true. Since 9/11, there has just been a lack of political will to revisit the authorization that was granted after the September 11th attacks that paved the way for the intervention in Afghanistan and other types of counter-terrorism operations and military actions. Under Obama, there was the deployment of several thousand troops to Iraq and eventually Syria to take on Islamic State militants. There was no new authorization. The president then even asked for one, and said he was ready to engage on that, but there again, there wasn't the political will.

Brian Hanson: This is a domestic constraint, potentially, which you've laid out the dynamics of. How about in terms of international legal constraints? This wasn't an attack on the United States itself. Is the United States in a position to take military action that would be consistent with international legal obligations? Not that the administration or others might respect those, but is there international law that comes into play here?

Dion Nissenbaum: Go for it, Dan.

Dan De Luce: As a non-expert, I would say that that's part of the reason that the United States is seeking other countries to join in. You have France and Britain in pretty advanced discussions with the U.S. on this. France is pretty forward-leaning. Possibly some Arab Gulf countries, the Saudis and others, perhaps. That lends it at least a political veneer, but I think the argument goes that the use of banned chemical weapons, which are banned under international conventions ... By violating that, then a country opens itself up to outside military action, because they are arguably posing a threat to the rest of the world, peace, their own people, others, and so therefore a coalition of the willing has to take action to prevent a dangerous precedent developing where very terrible, very dangerous, and banned, prohibited international weapons of mass destruction are used routinely without consequence, with impunity. Of course, there was an attempt to get backing, sort of an international consensus to condemn the incident in Syria. Russia, of course, vetoed a resolution on that at the Security Council.

Dion Nissenbaum: Yeah, I think that was what I was going to add, is that there is a parallel track here at the United Nations to try and get an international move, not just to condemn the act but to establish an investigative body that could go in, determine what was used, and who was responsible. That was rejected by Russia, and so then you have the Trump administration coming back and saying, "Look, we've tried to go through the international route. We've tried to use the United Nations, but Russia is protecting Assad and preventing us from taking that kind of action." There is still a parallel track going on. There's still our negotiations at the United Nations to try and develop an investigative body, and to go in and look.

There are fact-finders that are heading into Syria very soon to try and figure out what happened, but it does seem like, for the U.S. militarily, that maybe the train has left the station. If the president now were to step back from the brink, he would likely be accused of drawing the red line, as President Obama did, and stepping back, which is one of the things that Trump has hammered former President Obama for when, in 2013, there was a similar incident with far greater casualties, and he was prepared to strike. At the very last minute, Russia came in and offered to help eliminate Assad's chemical weapons stocks. President Obama decided not to strike. If the new president were to take a similar approach, he would probably face similar criticism.

Brian Hanson: Both of you talked about the coalitions of the willing and others that were working with it. Dion, I've read some of the reporting that you've done on this U.S. effort to bring others into this project. You spent a lot of time on the region, as well. What are you seeing in terms of the engagement of U.S. allies or others in the region to act? What could we expect to see?

Dion Nissenbaum: It looks at this point like we'll see a unified strike, certainly from France. France has been willing and eager to respond on this. President Macron has been very outspoken about this as a red line. He's ready to go. Britain also seems like it's likely to go now. They're searching for more evidence. It does seem like that evidence is now in Western hands, and they were expected to make a decision to join part later today.

Apart from that, I think folks like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have expressed support for a strike. It's not clear what role militarily they could play. They might play some sort of symbolic role in providing some sort of support, air defenses. It'll depend on how broad the attack is, but at this point, it seems like it'll be a French-British-U.S. strike with maybe Saudi Arabia providing some limited support.

I think you are seeing general support for the U.S. in this approach from folks like Israel, who are very concerned about the Iranian presence and what's happening in Syria, which is right next door to them. They actually are believed to have taken their own military strike over the weekend against a Syrian base. It was unrelated to this, but was related to their concerns about the expanding Iranian presence. I think that's how things are shaping up in terms of the coalition of the willing and the strike.

Brian Hanson: Dan, anything in addition that you see beyond that?

Dan De Luce: I think that's a good summary. I think it is important for us to point out, it's rather obvious, but we're having quite a rational, high-minded discussion here. This is a very abnormal presidency, and the way this issue is being handled by the president, where he's sending out tweets that are reminiscent of a schoolyard, a schoolboy taunting Russia or Assad, that has introduced an element of unpredictability, and volatility, and anxiety across the U.S. military, across the world, among our U.S. allies, and U.S. adversaries.

It adds a whole element of uncertainty and risk, because it's not just the weapons you use, but what you declare, and what you say when you employ those weapons. Those questions you were raising earlier about the legality under either U.S. or international law are very important, and those get brushed aside and trivialized if you have a commander-in-chief who's treating all of this in a cavalier way in his rhetoric. It could undermine the effect, too. That's another risk. Some of the things that he's saying or tweeting that are contradictory or seemingly cavalier, that also can have an effect.

It's true that France and Britain seem to be ready to do this. I think there is some speculation even that France has nudged Trump and the U.S. in this direction. At least over time, I think the French and the French president are more focused on Syria than President Trump has been. We don't know for sure exactly this played out, but that is interesting.

It's also interesting that Britain is almost a little displaced in all of this. They're not quite as forward-leaning as France. The polls show that there's not a majority support even among the British public for military action. Theresa May and the British government have to be careful how they go about this. They won't want this to be open-ended. I think it would be politically costly. Trump is pretty radioactive politically in Europe.

Brian Hanson: Let me jump into that and explore a little more on that tweet and the offhanded comments by which policy positions are made. You talked about that contradictory tweet about what might happen. There's going to be a response. There are going to be smart, new missiles coming in. Today, things may be coming very soon or not very soon. The other offhanded comment that has already been raised once was last week, when President Trump, as I understand it as a surprise to his own security advisors, commented that he wanted to get out of Syria, and he wanted to get out of Syria quickly.

Some have said that that could have given Assad a signal that, "Yeah, the U.S. doesn't really want to get involved. We don't care very much," and increased the chances of the attack. First, do you think that public position, that offhanded, spontaneously created position, actually figured into Assad's calculation of whether or not to strike with the chemical weapons?

Dan De Luce: I think it's impossible to know. Senator McCain, who's a pretty prominent hawk usually, was leveling that criticism, that it was precisely Trump's public statements or reported statements about being ready to withdraw from Syria had somehow emboldened Assad. I don't know. Assad was using chemical weapons also before this, over months, so you can argue that both ways. Certainly, it is extraordinary, and really a reflection of the impulsive nature of the president, and the incoherence often of policies that he promulgates, that in the space of days you have the U.S. president saying that he wants U.S. troops out of Syria really quickly, and then in the blink of an eye, he's threatening tough military action, and taunting Assad and Russia.

It certainly sends an incredibly contradictory signal, and it shows that there is really not a clear U.S. policy on Syria. I think most reporters would agree with me on this. When you try to figure out what is U.S. policy on Syria, it seems to move. It seems to shift. It's always under discussion and debate. It wasn't that long ago that former Secretary of State Tillerson was talking about an open-ended U.S. military presence in Syria, not just to go after Islamic State but to counter Iran, and so on and so forth. It's whiplash. It doesn't really probably serve much useful purpose in the end. I don't know how that's supposed to deter Assad or deter Russia, if the U.S. is all over the place.

Dion Nissenbaum: Yeah. I think if you look at the timeline of what happened since the last strike, the catalyst for the last strike last April was a nerve gas attack that killed dozens of people. There were allegations that the Russians helped cover it up, at the end by bombing the hospital where the people were taken afterwards. Since that time until fairly recently, Assad had only used chlorine gas, which is in a little bit of a different category from the sarin and the nerve gas that is suspected of being used in his most recent attack.

The U.S. had obliquely warned Assad about using chemical weapons in recent months, and he has used chlorine, but chlorine doesn't have the same deadly effect that sarin gas has. The chlorine gas fell in this weird nether world for the U.S. and its allies, about chemical weapons attacks. Then you have the president very publicly saying, "We're going to get out of Syria. We're going to get out of Syria soon." Then you have Assad apparently using sarin gas again several days later.

I think if you just look at that timeline, it does suggest that Assad probably felt like he could use this without fear of significant repercussions from the U.S., as Senator McCain and others have suggested. Of course, we can't know that for certain, but if you look at the timeline, I think it does suggest that.

As Dan said, the U.S. really is in disarray on its Syria policy. When former Secretary of State Tillerson delivered his speech in January talking about the Syria policy, he not only talked about this open-ended presence, he also talked about confronting Iran and expelling Iran's malign influence from the country. Then everybody at the Pentagon was saying, "That's not our job. We're there to defeat Islamic State." Now Secretary Tillerson has gone back to the private sector, and you've got new people in place. Pompeo is set to take over, so the policy is certainly in question.

I think that, going forward, is one of the things that Defense Secretary Mattis was talking about this morning, and saying, "What is our long-term objective?" As Dan said a couple of times, they need to explain what the goal is here and what the the long-term Syria policy's going to be. Generally up until now, what the White House has been saying is, "We just want to deter him from using chemical weapons again. We want to cripple his ability to use those weapons, and then we're going to do more." We'll see, in the coming hours and days, exactly how they explain the policy, and how they explain the rationale for the strike, and the goals for the strike.

Brian Hanson: One last question on the U.S. policy and politics is another new player. Not only is Tillerson out, but John Bolton just started his job this week. Actually, last week's podcast was about Bolton. One of the points made by my guest there was, of course, Bolton's got a reputation for a very hawkish set of views in general, and a sense that he's been brought in to be Trump's man, to carry out the president's will. We've moved from a place of the adults in the room being able to put some buffers around policy choices to one in which the president may be able to assert his will, changeable as it might be, on policy. Do you get any sense of that at this point, of what difference does it make that Bolton's in this job as we work through this particular situation?

Dion Nissenbaum: I think that's generally the consensus here. He's certainly more forward-leaning on military options. When I was looking at this issue last week, I went back to look at what Bolton had said when Obama was considering a strike in 2013. At that time, he actually said that he would oppose the military strike if it wasn't part of a broader strategic plan. He was more supportive of President Trump when he took the strike last April. Literally this debate happened on his first few days in the job here. He's come into a baptism of fire, having to deal with this.

My guess is that he is probably supporting the military strike and trying to thread the needle here in terms of doing something that won't inflame tensions or trigger a broader conflict, as the Pentagon is warning. I think with him in place, you certainly are going to see a man who channels the president's instincts for trying to push back in situations like this.

Dan De Luce: Yeah. I think this is a really interesting test of the new team, and not just Bolton. Who has the president's ear? Where everyone comes out in the end will be interesting. Mattis is often seen as this calming, moderating influence on this president. It'll be interesting to see if Bolton and Mattis come to a sharp disagreement on this or not, and if they do, who prevails over the president. This is a baptism of fire, as you said, for Bolton. Yes, he has a relationship with the president, but arguably Mattis already has maybe a more established one, at least since Trump became president. It's one thing to defend the president on Fox. It's another thing to be the national security advisor and General Mattis is disagreeing with you.

The other thing about Bolton is his focus, I would guess, in the end will be Iran. He will want to look at this and say, "Okay, whatever we do needs to contribute to an effort to counter Iran's influence in the region and in Syria." Bolton is very, very focused on Iran. Some would say fixated. You have thousands of proxies, Hezbollah militia, and other Iranian-backed forces there, and even Iranian advisors on the ground. That has made Israel very nervous, and it's something that concerns people like Bolton. That'll be interesting to see, how he frames the action. Is it just to go after the chemical weapons, or are there added outcomes they're trying to get that somehow send signals to Iran or send signals to Russia?

Brian Hanson: That's a great point. You've set up my exit question. I want to ask you both the same closing question, which really goes to this issue of all the players in the entangled alliances that exist in that region. Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Ryan Crocker has looked at that and said, "Look at all these entangling alliances, both big and small, Syria, Russia, the U.S., Iran, Israel, Turkey, Palestine, and Hezbollah." He looked at that and drew an analogy to 1914, where a set of alliances drove a dynamic where what seemed to be a minor crisis in Serbia led to World War One. I'm curious. Do you see the potential for this situation and the politics in this region to lead to potentially a very catastrophic outcome, or is this overblown, and why?

Dion Nissenbaum: I guess I'll go first, since I punted to Dan on the international questions one. I'd like to think that the world powers in the region all want to avoid that kind of conflagration. There certainly are a lot of potential, dangerous flashpoints, and all of those individual countries or players that you mentioned, for things to get out of control. One of the things that is overarching all of this is that the president is trying to get the U.S. out of that. He really wants to leave a lot of the fighting to our allies in that area, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

I think if there is a potential for things to get out of control, it might come from that, where the U.S. is pulling back from its effort to moderate things, and allowing Israel and Saudi Arabia to be the muscle, and to force the issue. Israel does feel like it has the backing of the U.S. to take strong action against Iran in Syria. Iran is or does appear to be sending in more weapons and testing Israel more often. Saudi Arabia certainly wants to push back. They've got their own problems with Iranian allies in Yemen, and in the fight that they're fighting in Yemen. If there's a risk, it may be from the pulling back from the role and trying to tamp things down. I would like to believe that everybody wants to avoid World War Three, but as you suggested, a small spark can trigger a big fire that can't be controlled.

Brian Hanson: Dan, how do you see it?

Dan De Luce: Yeah. There's always been the danger and the fear with this civil war in Syria that the longer it went on, and the more outside powers were drawn in, that you could see some awful, wider, regional conflict erupt, a little bit like Lebanon was in the '80s, or in World War One. Ryan Crocker obviously is a pretty experienced, sober-minded diplomat. He doesn't just make cavalier dire warnings. I did see on Twitter today that people were referring to The Guns of August, that book by Barbara Tuckman, about World War One, and this accidental chain reaction where entangling alliances lead to an outcome no one really wants.

What probably raises the risk of that now is that you don't have the U.S. trying to ... You really don't have a concerted peace process. The UN struggles to pursue that, but the events on the ground, in a way, aren't really promoting peace talks, because one side is winning. The Assad regime, backed by Russia, backed by Iran, has been gaining some momentum, has been prevailing on the ground, so it has very little incentive to make concessions.

Then, the U.S. lacks, and has lacked all along, leverage. Even when under the last administration, Obama's Secretary of State John Kerry tried to broker peace and negotiations, and tried to push the process, and sat down with his Russian counterpart again and again. In that case, whatever the two of them agreed, Russia couldn't really deliver the Assad regime much less Iran. On the U.S. side, what kind of leverage does the U.S. have? Well, they've backed these Kurdish forces, and they have a strong number of troops on the ground, and the U.S. has airpower. The U.S. does not have as many chips on the table.

The longer this goes on, the greater there is the risk of this kind of regional conflagration. I think Dion's right. Israel is the key factor here. They feel extremely threatened by Iran and its proxies in Syria. So, we could see a conflict that's really Israel versus Hezbollah slash Iran that extends from Lebanon to Syria. That's one very bad scenario that's not totally unrealistic.

Brian Hanson: I think this is a really helpful conversation, because soon we will know what the U.S. and its allies' response is. What I really appreciate about how you both laid things out for us is to give us a bigger context to understand this set of events as it plays out, and how it connects to a far bigger story. Dan, Dion, thank you very much both for being on the show today.

Dion Nissenbaum: Thanks very much to you.

Dan De Luce: Thank you.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning in to this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. If you have questions about anything you heard today, please feel free to ask them at our Facebook page, Deep Dish on Global Affairs. As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them, and are not the institutional views of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. If you liked the show, please let us know by tapping the subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find us under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. If you know someone who you think would enjoy listening to this episode, please tap the share button and send this to them, too. Deep Dish is produced by Evan Fazio. Our audio engineer is Joe Palermo. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon for another slice of Deep Dish.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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