The Scary Temptation of War in Syria

The incoherence of President Trump’s foreign policy – and his reliance on “the shows” to get his military advice – have made Syria a dangerous temptation, explains ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

After the Soviet Union launched a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, President Jimmy Carter remarked to a television interviewer that this event had “made a more dramatic change in my opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office.”

President Donald Trump announces the selection of Gen. H.R. McMaster as his new National Security Adviser on Feb. 20, 2017. (Screen shot from

Carter took much criticism for this comment, with charges that he was revealing naiveté and should have known all along about the nature of the regime he was confronting. But at least the Soviet military intervention was a very large data point — a major departure in Soviet policy that was far different in scale from the use of a particular weapon in one encounter during an ongoing war.

Moreover, Carter did not respond to the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan with a U.S. military intervention there but instead with measures short of military intervention such as a grain embargo, boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, and what would become the provision of materiel to Afghan rebels. Carter’s main mistake was to interpret the objective of the Soviet intervention as part of a larger drive to seize parts of Asia with a warm-water shoreline rather than, as was actually the case, the more limited goal of shoring up a beleaguered Communist client regime in Kabul.

Now there has been a surge of cries to “do something” in response to a reported chemical weapons attack in Syria, which the Trump administration has answered with a cruise missile strike against a Syrian airbase. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is talking about regime change in Syria just a week after he had appeared to rule out such change as an objective.

We have heard this sort of belligerent uproar after previous battlefield developments in the Syrian war that have elicited outrage. There was an earlier reported use of chemical weapons, and several months ago there was a similar popular reaction to the situation in Aleppo in the final days before the regime recaptured the remainder of that city. These reactions are essentially expressions of mass emotion rather than a reflection of any careful consideration about what actions would or would not be in U.S. interests.

Trump’s Inconsistencies

In this situation, President Trump is by no means a bulwark against the United States taking action damaging to its interests, even though as a candidate he publicly urged President Obama to stay out of the war against Assad. As we know, consistency is not a strong suit of Trump. The fact that Obama did stay out, pretty much, of that war has not led Trump to hesitate in blaming Obama for the situation in Syria, just as he blames Obama for most everything else that people don’t like.

President Obama in the Oval Office.

Trump is less likely than Obama to resist the pressure to wade even more deeply into the Syrian civil war against Assad, even going beyond the cruise missile strike, because of several characteristics of Trump’s operating style. One is how he educates himself from “the shows” and believes he gets all the information he needs from cable TV.

His perceptions of the Syrian regime and his “understanding” of it thus really are likely to be shaped, and his policies on Syria moved, as some of Trump’s own comments this week suggest, by what he has seen on television and especially the graphic part of it — including pictures of dead children, as U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley was displaying at the United Nations.

Second is Trump’s focus on immediate popular approval at the expense of longer-term consequences. In other words, it is a continuation of campaign mode rather than governing mode.

Third is the apparent disconnect in Trump’s thinking of military operations from the pursuit of well-formulated strategic objectives. Clausewitzian principles are foreign to him in every respect. This disconnect underlies his giving of an unusually free hand to the Pentagon in formulating and initiating operations. This method of decision-making will tend to focus on what can be defined as military objectives with insufficient attention to exactly how achievement of those objectives would or would not advance U.S. national interests.

Perhaps National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is beginning to impose some more orderly thinking on national security decisions, but giving the military a free hand has the attraction to Trump of being able to shift blame to the military when things go badly (as he already did with a raid in Yemen).

Reasons for Doubt

The significant probability that Trump is immersing the United States into a larger and damaging intervention in the Syrian civil war is especially regrettable when bearing in mind the following.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

First, the incident with the chemical weapon — even if we accept the judgment that the regime was fully responsible — doesn’t tell us anything new about the regime. Responding to this incident is thus more a matter of emotion and response to popular clamor rather than of well-conceived policymaking use of a significant new data point. The Assad regime has employed many loathsome tactics in this war, and they have not needed chemical agents to do so. Even if a U.S. military attack had some deterrent value regarding future use of chemicals, the regime can and would just use its other means that have resulted in many civilian casualties — some of which, such as the use of ground-based artillery, do not even require air operations.

Second, the make-up of whatever regime rules in Damascus is not an important U.S. interest, and certainly not important enough to warrant the costs and risks of immersion in someone else’s civil war. The Assads have been in power in Syria since 1970; why is regime change supposedly an objective now?

Third, it is not within U.S. power, even using more extensive military force, to change that regime. The regime itself has its own existence to fight for, and it is aided by Russia, Iran and non-state allies. The assertion that Russia’s intervention went more smoothly and was more effective than predicted, and that the United States could do, or could have done, the same is a fallacy. The asymmetries are huge.

Russia’s intervention was a tipping of the scale in favor of what was already the dominant force in the fight, which was the incumbent regime. Any effort by an outsider to intervene on the other side would depend on what always has been the weak reed of a disorganized (and extremist-laden) opposition. And surely we have learned by now the lesson that knocking off a loathsome ruler is only the beginning of what can be a very long and costly effort to establish and prop up some alternative.

Fourth, direct U.S. military intervention in this war carries a significant risk of escalation into a much wider war, especially when facing the large military requirements of establishing something like the much-talked-about safe zones. The risk of even more widespread warfare also would come through direct engagement, intentional or unintentional, of Russian or Iranian forces.

Throughout the Cold War, the superpowers were careful to avoid any such direct engagement with each other, however much they sponsored and equipped armed proxies. That was part of why Carter did not get into a direct military fight in Afghanistan. It would be most unwise to throw away such caution where the Russians are involved today.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

28 comments for “The Scary Temptation of War in Syria

  1. April 11, 2017 at 05:51

    A group of Australian academics have formed the CCHS, Centre for Counter Hegemonic Studies. They believe the satin attack is a hoax and that Assad has been framed. They will host a 2-day conference next week.

    To those two individuals who remarked that Syria has supported torture, we do know that the torturing regime of Bush and Cheney outsourced rendition to several countries including Syria. What do we know other than the details of the case of Maher Arar, the Canadian engineer who was mistakenly labeled a terrorist and tortured in Syria just after the “war on terror” had begun? Assad became president of Syria in 2000 after his father died, and he was reluctant to do so. His father was a very hard-line dictator as many of the ME presidents have been, and the police and jail system no doubt were in place when he took over. I suspect he knew little about his father’s system, as he was in London practicing as an ophthalmologist. He may have been a weak leader to start with against the regime he inherited. We don’t get the truth.

    We do not know much about Syria other than what the press tells us about it, and journalists are controlled by the government power structure for the narrative. Who are we to tell other sovereign nations how to run their business? The United States is doing a pretty horrible job of running this country’s business. There is torture in the jails of the United States, and a judicial system that does not work fairly for US citizens, particularly Blacks. Then there is the horror of Guantanamo. Pure hypocrisy, lies told to keep people fooled so that the US can continue their hegemonic wars.

  2. April 11, 2017 at 03:39

    General Clarke exposed how the Pentagon had their own plans to takeover 7 countries in 5 years. Syria was one of those and …..oh yeah…..none of those 7 were controlled by the Rothschilds Central Banks.


  3. exiled off mainstreet
    April 11, 2017 at 01:57

    A silver lining in this extremely dark cloud is that some of those who formerly supported the harpy’s policy recognize its odium when Trump does a 180 and follows it. The policy renders the condition of western civilization terminal. Civilization can’t survive a nuclear war, the logical endpoint of this sick policy based on a false accusation as can be easily ascertained by anybody who dispassionately views the evidence, other than the put-up jobs of the propaganda establishment..

  4. mark
    April 10, 2017 at 19:32

    What strikes me most is the total nauseating hypocrisy and lack of self awareness of Trump and his cronies and western satraps as they shed their crocodile tears over “beautiful little babies.” Like the 500,000 children who died in Iraq 1991 – 2003 from western sanctions. Or the 1.5 million dead and 6 million refugees after 2003 in Iraq. Or the thousands of children in Gaza and Yemen from US and British cluster bombs and white phosphorous. Or the babies in Fallujah and Ramadi being born with two heads from the depleted uranium. Or the 250 dead from the US airstrike in Mosul. How many dead babies is ever enough for this sub human filth?

  5. April 10, 2017 at 17:00

    I got the wrong word, those were colonialists at the end of WWI and these continuing warmongers are neocolonialists in the present day. At any rate, I believe the US is going to pay dearly for its crimes, it will fall like Rome, the US economy is based entirely on its military misadventures and has an astronomical debt! This time, the barbarians are running the show!

  6. April 10, 2017 at 16:43

    Thank you, Tom Welsh, no better arguments could be made, and many others, too, and demonization of Assad has gone on long enough, how was he elected by a majority of Syrians and still supported by them despite the life-destroying turmoil caused and continued by the West? Brzezinski started this “Grand Chessboard” policy in the Middle East and it has become destructive beyond words since Bush and Cheney, the War criminals. Now it has reached schizophrenia so that there does not even seem to be an actual connection with reality on the part of the Western nations, and the US has to me become completely psychopathic, even the citizens! Who are we to meddle and judge in these Middle East countries whose nations were even manipulated by the Western neocolonialists at the end of WWI with the Sykes-Picot Treaty and the people had nothing to say about it? Besides, I do believe these are resource wars complicated by the US complete support of Israel.

  7. Adrian Engler
    April 10, 2017 at 12:47

    “First, the incident with the chemical weapon — even if we accept the judgment that the regime was fully responsible — doesn’t tell us anything new about the regime. […] The Assad regime has employed many loathsome tactics in this war, and they have not needed chemical agents to do so.”

    It is probably indisputable that the Syrian government is responsible for human rights violations. For instance, in the “war on terror”, suspects who were brought to them by the CIA were tortured. There are also more recent cases of human rights violations that are not connected with the United States. But – especially if we take into account that there is no clear evidence for the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government -, it is far from clear than the human rights situation is worse in Syria is worse than in many other countries in the Middle East that are US allies.

    A recurrent pattern is that governments that are under attack by terrorist groups are demonized. Probably, there are many cases in which the Syrian army has used tactics that are inacceptable, and of course, they should avoid this. But it is hardly appropriate to expect that after attacks of IS/Daesh and Al Qaeda linked rebel groups who have very little concern for human life and use terrorist tactics the army that fights these terrorist groups will always behave in a correct way. Of course, it should still be criticized when it doesn’t, but it is hardly appropriate to demonize it in such a way.

    We can see a similar pattern in other cases. In Kosovo, there was basically a political conflict between the ethnic Albanian majority that wanted independence and the Serbian government. A political solution would have to be found, whether this would mean autonomy, independence or a partition of Kosovo. But this political conflict was overshadowed by terrorist attacks by UçK (the Kosova Liberation Army). They targeted the police, people from the Serbian minority in Kosova and Albanian Kosovars who maintained relationships with Serbs (“traitors”). There were also terrorist attacks by Serbian extremist groups (Arkan etc.), but the most active terrorist group was the KLA, a group that was temporarily on the US list of terrorist groups, but also sometimes supported by the US. Of course, the police had to fight against these terrorist attacks, as the police would have done in any country. In these fights, there almost certainly sometimes was excessive violence, which should be criticized, but it is certainly not appropriate to focus only on these cases and using them for demonizing the Serbian government while ignoring the terrorist attacks by the KLA.

    In the case of Libya, the situation is even more strange. Of course the human rights record of Libya under Gaddhafi is far from perfect, but the main argument for the regime change intervention was something that had not even happened, the claim that during the future fight against armed militias dominated by Islamists, some of which were linked with Al Qaeda, human rights would be violated.

    In Syria, with IS/Daesh and Al Qaeda (Jabhat Fateh Al Sham), there is even a much bigger terrorist threat. Of course that should not mean that people should refrain from all criticism of cruel war tactics by the Syrian army, but taking into account that they have to do with an opponent that acts in very cruel ways, one should be very careful about one-sidedly demonizing the Syrian government and supporting actions that would strengthen the terrorist groups, which are by far the strongest among the armed insurgents.

    One could imagine a kind of reporting about World War II along the lines of the propaganda for “humanitarian interventions” that would solely focus on war crimes by the Allied Forces. Of course, some actions – especially the ones by Bomber Harris that caused enormous suffering for civilians without being very beneficial for military goals and, though perhaps more controversially, the use of nuclear weapons by the United States – are now recognized by many as war crimes, in my view rightly so. But when looking at the details, one could probably find a very large number of military actions by the allied forces that could be described as war crimes if the one-sided view of the propagandists for “humanitarian interventions” that completely ignores the actions of the opponents of those who are demonized is applied. One could probably develop a whole narrative about how evil the Allied Forces were and how innocent civilians and babies suffered under their attacks if one absurdly ignored the fact that they were fighting against Nazi Germany that was generally even more cruel and would have inflicted tremendous suffering if it had won the war.

    • Bill Bodden
      April 10, 2017 at 14:27

      One could imagine a kind of reporting about World War II along the lines of the propaganda for “humanitarian interventions” that would solely focus on war crimes by the Allied Forces.

      Before the end of the Second World War lawyers were already preparing for the Nuremberg Trials. They made up lists of charges to lay against the Nazi leaders. The lists were submitted to Washington and London where many of the alleged crimes were deleted because U.S. and U.K. troops were also guilty of similar crimes. How could they charge the Germans with crimes of bombing civilian targets such as London, Coventry, and Birmingham after Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo? Not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  8. D5-5
    April 10, 2017 at 12:40

    In my reading in the usual sites this forum likes to go to such as Zero Hedge, NEO, Clearing House, etc. there is more commentary on the theme of “dangerous temptations” Paul Pillar is talking about. His “brush back” (baseball allusion) maneuver to Putin with the missile strike was “message,” plus additional “messaging” to President Xi of China, possibly among the first to know of the strike, plus now a battle group is sailing toward North Korea along with talk of “special forces” going into the country to disarm its nuclear facilities, and we also have Tillerson’s self-righteousness today on how the US won’t stand for any human rights violations anywhere on the planet. Trump is likely basking in the glow of his new heroism, which could be a heady stimulant indeed for more stupidity.

  9. mike k
    April 10, 2017 at 12:07

    Mr. Pillar ignores in this article the plain fact that the US has never had any business attacking or invading Syria. This is all part of the evil doomed plan to dominate the planet. This is so obvious that anyone who does not base their remarks on it is fussing about diplomatic and political details that do not help us put this affair in it’s real context. The US military is an instrument of world piracy. This huge US Mafia hit squad only exists to coerce or destroy those who refuse to give everything to the would be world hegemon.

    • Dave P.
      April 11, 2017 at 02:18

      Mike: Excellent. You are right on the mark.

  10. Tom Welsh
    April 10, 2017 at 11:53

    “Second, the make-up of whatever regime rules in Damascus is not an important U.S. interest, and certainly not important enough to warrant the costs and risks of immersion in someone else’s civil war. The Assads have been in power in Syria since 1970; why is regime change supposedly an objective now?”

    Or to put it more simply: what business is of the US government how the Syrian people run their own country? Absolutely none.

  11. Tom Welsh
    April 10, 2017 at 11:50

    “Russia’s intervention was a tipping of the scale in favor of what was already the dominant force in the fight, which was the incumbent regime”.

    That sounds extremely unlikely. To the best of my knowledge, Russia intervened just in the nick of time to prevent a decisive victory by the terrorists. Indeed, had such a decisive victory not been imminent, it’s most unlikely that Russia would have made such a huge and risky commitment. The Syrian armed forces had lost at least 100,000 men fighting the terrorists (who had also killed at least 100,000 civilians – quite deliberately, and no doubt in compliance with the commands of their state sponsors). The terrorists had occupied a large part of Aleppo, and had significant footholds in Damascus itself. Large areas of the country had been taken entirely out of government control.

    Leaving aside the moral vileness of such a policy, its political and military astuteness must be admitted. The sponsors of the terrorists who attacked Syria took a leaf out of the book of such pioneers as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, who demonstrated how a small force of guerillas can undermine a national government by the simplest of means. First they attack civilians; the police come to stop them. Then they kill the police; the armed forces come to stop them. They flit around, now you see them, now you don’t. Frustrated and angry, the armed forces hit back with all their powerful weapons. Now they start to kill civilians. Result! What was done in Syria was just the scaling up of such techniques, backed by huge amounts of money and materiel, and carried out by ununiformed guerillas whose leaders possessed very considerable military skill and experience. A precursor of what was done in Syria can be seen in the way the US government supported Muslim mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The consequences of that bright idea were catastrophic; it affords some insight into the diabolical natures behind the ISIS phenomenon that their reaction was to scale up the use of terrorism as a kind of proxy armed force.

    • Donald
      April 10, 2017 at 20:58

      How do you know the terrorists killed 100,000 civilians and how do you know the Syrian government hasn’t committed massive atrocities?

      I think we have enough evidence to know both sides commit war crimes– beyond that is guesswork.

  12. April 10, 2017 at 11:42

    Problem is, the warmonger neocons, liberal interventionists, and Bart and Bret Maverick McCain and Graham, see Russia not as a nuclear superpower or country with national interests, but merely as a “gas station” whose hapless attendant they can knock off in an easy smash and grab raid. Like gangsters planning a heist, they really expect no opposition and think that the only bar to success is not having the guts to do it. Too much watching of fictional TV shows. Now they have one of the show stars to make reality imitate low entertainment.

    • mike k
      April 10, 2017 at 14:05

      Those two guys make stupidity look like genius. They are vile comic book bad guys playing out their evil roles without a clue. These nut cases want us to believe they are some kind of superheroes to the rescue. They test my decision not to offer up hate prayers to see their sorry #&@$!’s disappear in a cloud of suferous smoke!

      • mike k
        April 10, 2017 at 14:09

        correction: sulfurous (Like Chavez claimed he smelled after Bush left the UN.)

  13. Tom Welsh
    April 10, 2017 at 11:40

    “Second, the make-up of whatever regime rules in Damascus is not an important U.S. interest, and certainly not important enough to warrant the costs and risks of immersion in someone else’s civil war”.

    It is NOT a “civil war”, any more than the German invasion of Poland was, or the invasion of Vietnam by US forces. The appearance of a civil war has been deliberately engineered by using terrorists who do not wear the uniform of any recognised nation. Most of them are not even Syrian; they are armed, provisioned, advised, protected, given intelligence and guided by the foreign governments that sponsor them. From time to time those foreign governments give the terrorists direct support, for instance by shooting down aircraft engaged in fighting the terrorists, or by attacking air fields from which such air strikes have been launched.

    • D5-5
      April 10, 2017 at 12:18

      Tom Welsh I second all these comments, and your additions below. You have eloquently made the points I was thinking of. CN needs to stop hosting writers with all the prejudices you point out.

    • mike k
      April 10, 2017 at 13:57

      Right on Tom! Enough of this “civil war” bullshit. This war is an act of illegal inhumane aggression by the evil American Empire in league with the equally evil Israeli government.

  14. Tom Welsh
    April 10, 2017 at 11:35

    “The Assad regime has employed many loathsome tactics in this war…”

    Any chance of some actual facts to support this top-of-the-head generalization? Precisely what “loathsome tactics”? And are they any more loathsome than the tactics the US regime would employ if suddenly confronted by 100,000 heavily armed, murderous, raping, torturing terrorists armed to the teeth with the latest weapons, marching on Washington DC with the stated intention of overthrowing the government, killing the President and the Congress, and setting up an Islamic state with Sharia law?

    • goldhoarder
      April 10, 2017 at 13:45

      As Assad is just the head of their Bathist state I wonder about all the demonization of him in the Western press. I have a deep suspicion that if Assad chose to step down the West would proclaim that it wasn’t enough. All of the other Syrian government leaders would have to step down and a Sunni rebel would be the only Western approved leader. Assad is a London trained eye doctor who only started working for the government when the favored son died. His rise to power was an accident of history. I’m sure him and his wife wish they never left London. LOL. It will be a bloodbath if the Sunni revels take over power. The Syrian governement really doesn’t have a choice in this war. It is either fight or die for them. Including Assad. His head is coming off if the rebels ever do win. I don’t think Americans even have any clue what a mess this is. The Syrian government’s survival is the only thing that will prevent a horrific ending.

    • backwardsevolution
      April 10, 2017 at 15:39

      Assad and his wife greet Syrian citizens newly freed from jihadis:

      You can just imagine Trump or Hillary acting like this!

  15. Tom Welsh
    April 10, 2017 at 11:31

    “First, the incident with the chemical weapon — even if we accept the judgment that the regime was fully responsible — doesn’t tell us anything new about the regime”.

    I utterly and vigorously reject that assertion. And even if Mr Pillar used to work for some part of the alphabet soup, that doesn’t give me any reason at all to believe that he knows more about the matter than I do. Where was the “intelligence community” when Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and Blair launched the invasion of Iraq based on a pack of transparent lies about WMD? Where was it when the decision was taken to attack Afghanistan for no particular reason? Likewise Libya?

    If anyone knows of any certain, concrete details that show “the regime” (or “the legitimately elected Syrian government”, as it is more properly known) has done anything on a par with using chemical weapons against civilians, please state it. (Not that using chemical weapons against civilians has ever been above the US regime; and not that poison gas is any worse than filthy weapons such as napalm and white phosphorus).

    • Bart in Virginia
      April 10, 2017 at 13:37

      Tom, don’t forget depleted uranium.

      • Martin
        April 11, 2017 at 04:45

        Indeed, DU is the slow genocidal poison that keeps on giving for seven generations, and Iraq is now littered with a fine dusting of it.

  16. Tom Welsh
    April 10, 2017 at 11:25

    “His perceptions of the Syrian regime and his “understanding” of it thus really are likely to be shaped, and his policies on Syria moved, as some of Trump’s own comments this week suggest, by what he has seen on television…”

    Is it really conceivable that this President doesn’t understand that what he sees on TV is largely dictated by his own subordinates? Talk about “closed-loop government”!

    • Anthony Shaker
      April 10, 2017 at 17:00

      However we view Pres. Carter’s “perceptions” of the USSR, US interference and sabotage in Afghanistan did not begin with the Russian intervention in 1980 (on invitation of the Afghan government). Before 1980, a whole series of events had taken place whose outcome has still to be played out.

      That series of events began with a small but successful Marxist revolutionary movement among the educated urban population, who were tired of seeing their country dictated to by the Western states. This success led to a very destructive CIA destabilization campaign, especially since 1978 (if my memory is correct), and on to palace coups by one or another faction of the political leadership to restore security.

      The revolution was doomed from the start because of several factors that CIA was able to exploit to maximum: 1) it was Marxist in a conservative country; 2) urban in a land of farmers; 3) too dependent on an educated elite and government employees, both of whom were systematically massacred and en masse by the Mujahideen in the countryside, and 4) too small to take root in a booming population. But it was genuine in an age of degenerating Leftist causes.

      I am pretty sure Carter, who spends his time exculpating himself from his own past crimes there and elsewhere, had known this bit of Afghan history before he made that idiotic comment quoted above. After all, he wasn’t born the day after the Soviet Red army had entered the country. He was perfectly aware of what the US was doing in Afghanistan in the first place that was causing so much bloodshed.

      And I have no doubt in my mind that Trump had, by the time of 59-missile strike, been briefed. As Robert Parry showed in a previous article, Trump appears to have ignored the advice of his own intelligence people–to his own peril. Now, he has boxed himself into a prickly corner, along with the US and the rest of the West (England and France).

      Fear of war is not the only thing that is palpable today. People around the world are wondering if these three arrogant, venomous states have not finally gone stark raving mad. How could anybody be desperate about losing the ability to maintain his world domination to the point of risking an uncontrollable conflagration.

      I think the West must now stand down–better still: sit down, stop this hysteria and dry its crocodile tears about human suffering. Or, there will be big trouble. The world will not abide more decades beyond the 150 years of Western-created chaos around the planet. Things have gotten much bigger than in the 1830s, the beginning of colonialism. I’d like to know: have we grown up or grown senile since that ugly old time?

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