Jim must have been furious.
It was almost lunchtime in Washington, D.C., Tuesday when President Donald Trump huddled his National Security Council and his top military advisors in the White House. They’re shown images — far more graphic than those shown the public — of children gasping for breath and foaming at the mouth. The Pentagon, relying on radar tracking, shows a Syrian Air Force plane leaving a key airfield and flying over the precise site of the chemical attack multiple times. Open source videos and reports of victims match the time of the flyover.
Intelligence analysts conclude it was sarin gas. The New York Times reports that Trump is visibly “shaken” by the photos of the kids. Trump takes a few more meetings on domestic policy goals, the Times reports, but “aides say the images from Syria — especially those showing the suffering of small children and babies — weigh on him.”
Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who often insists on ditching the prodigious nicknames and honorifics in favor of simply “Jim,” stolidly tells reporters Wednesday that the attack “was a heinous act and will be treated as such.” He had also seen the images. In my brief conversations with the secretary, I would say he has a well-developed sense of philosophic morality. He protects the innocent. He plays fair. He “didn’t bring artillery.” He certainly doesn’t mind killing the “kind of scum” that “won’t let a little girl learn how to read,” he told me once.
A day later, Trump authorizes Mattis to launch 59 cruise missiles at the airport where the intelligence community has concluded Syrian forces staged the chemical attack.
And you would think, by the reaction from the spineless twerps occupying the further right and left of the political spectrum like little blobs of saliva at the corners of Glenn Greenwald’s frenetic mouth, that the Donald had not only planned the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but also subsequently ordered Paul Bremer’s disastrous dismissal of the Iraqi Army.
Some said Trump betrayed his “America First” campaign oath. Others wondered if the strike was the beginning of a more concerted effort to regime change. The shrillest of the shrill insisted Trump and Mattis were acting as the “air force” for Islamic extremists. The tired and not at all well-thought-out cliche assumes Assad is fighting ISIS. He isn’t.
To be clear, George W. Bush did not create ISIS. Neither did Barack Obama. But Syrian President Bashar Al Assad might as well sit on its board of directors. ISIS as we know it today got its start in Syria, not Iraq.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
Partisans would loudly point to the invasion in 2003. More astute, yet still likely partisan, analysts would tie the beginnings of ISIS to the aforementioned Bremer move. National security eggheads on the other side of the aisle would hammer Obama for not securing a status of forces agreement, leading to US forces getting kicked out (yes, kicked out is the right phrase) at the end of 2011.
Washington didn’t require a significant operating force in Iraq at the time. AQI was smashed into ineffectual fragments. They had no constituted presence in the country. Then domestic protests against Assad rose up in 2011 along with the rest of the Arab Spring.
Assad’s response to the protestors was rather simple: Shoot them. (Well, in order, it was shoot them, apologize for shooting them, then shoot them some more.)
In terms of proportion, what Assad did next made the Boston Massacre look like a tea party.
Here’s an account from Fordham University’s John Davenport, who’s painstakingly tracked the conflict:
The bodies of arrested protesters began to come back to their families dead, and showing signs of torture — including horrific injuries to teenage boys (eyes gouged out, kneecaps broken, genitals cut off, etc). A video of a 13 year old boy’s mutilated body circulated on YouTube. I have been directly told by Syrian leaders in the US that in May 2011, Syrian officials came to the homes of their relatives in eastern Damascus suburbs to tell them to forget that their captured teenage sons ever existed, as they would never see them again.
Now the US of A, she has quite the stomach for violence. Despite the gory details and the clamoring from activists appealing for American aid, she was unmoved. Protestors armed themselves. Syrian Army defectors, sickened by the sights, organized and stood up rebel battalions. They, much like we did once, started shooting back at a murderous king.
For his part, Assad insisted from the beginning that these protestors and defectors were “terrorists.” Not one to leave it at words, Assad made moves to get the terrorism thing going.
He opened his prisons, releasing jihadists who would end up leading some of the worst Islamic militant groups. His bombing campaigns, which targeted the Free Syrian Army but left nascent elements of ISIS unmolested, subsidized their unchecked growth.
“The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades,” a defector from Syrian Security Services told The National’s Phil Sands, a Brit who was himself captured and held by Islamic militants in Iraq during the height of the insurgency in 2006.
A Turkish government-owned media company claimed Assad cut a deal with ISIS for oil. Still others claimed Assad’s intelligence officers had “infiltrated” the ranks of ISIS in order to provide organizational feedback.
Among those allegedly making such claims, Abdullah Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, also a releasee from Assad’s prisons, basically wrote the textbook ISIS follows to inspire the dozens of lone-wolf attacks that started occurring in the West. Assad’s indiscriminate bombing campaigns drove civilians by the millions to seek refuge in Europe. Later, Russia joins the fight. ISIS still goes unmolested.
As of January this year, ISIS’s main stream of revenue was the Assad regime. Indeed, Assad is throwing more money than bombs at the group.
The bottom line is this: Virtually every national security woe the Western world has faced since leaving Iraq in 2011 is a direct result, not of the invasion in 2003, but President Bashar Al Assad’s very deliberate leadership decisions.
Still, America is unmoved. Obama spends $500 million training “four or five” Syrian guys who later quit. The body count rises. Four hundred thousand. What does it need to hit? Is seven million the lucky number?
Then come the photos. The kids. Trump is sickened. Mattis is likely furious. America’s stomach is finally moving. Still, the gutless twits among us say it’s a false flag. ISIS has those chemicals too, they say.
Sarin “is more complex and difficult to produce, particularly in military quantities. It is highly unlikely ISIS has made and weaponised sarin,” says Rod Barton, probably one of the most qualified individuals on the planet when it comes to WMDs.
Not to be stymied, the invertebrate hordes become ever more shrill. They point at the total body count, from bombs and guns and tanks, and say what about them. What about them? America is nothing if not principled, and it decided a long time ago that certain kinds of killing would not be tolerated.
And Trump would not tolerate it, no no.
As Chinese President Xi Jinping sits down to eat Thursday night with America’s most powerful Don at Mar A Lago, the Don’s own club, America’s calculating, most ruthless hammer, Mattis, sends Assad and Russia 59 reminders that this behavior has been well-outlined by America and its allies and it is not to ever, under any circumstances, occur again.
Later, after dinner, Trump pulls Xi aside to fill him in. See, Xi has been intransigent on a number of fronts. He’s playing chicken in the South China Sea, building up military forces. He has yet to commit on action against North Korea, which is explicitly hell bent on nuking America. He thinks Trump is a rube when it comes to trade. He thinks Trump is a rube in general.
So Trump pulls Xi aside and gives him a message: While you were pushing peas around on your plate, thinking I’m some fool, I had my boy Jim reassert American interests on the world stage. See, Mr. Xi, you might have thought that Putin’s chess had me a bit confounded. But every now and then, when someone’s lost in the nuance of chess, a checker comes along and flicks one of his pieces off the board. Putin’s no doubt recalculating, so should you. There’s a new Don in America.
From this point forward, Donald Trump and his benefactors are going to have a say in things, with regard to Syria, with regard to Russia, China, take your pick. Reminder, Xi: The Don’s word sends volleys of pretty powerful reminders.
The headlines that followed were predictable and comforting, frankly. Trump’s “message” was heard in North Korea, Moscow, Beijing, Washington, Tehran and Brussels. I’m sure Japan and Israel were thrilled. The time for back seat driving is over.
What comes of these strikes is up for debate. What isn’t is that Assad and Putin are not good men, and men who are not good need to know where they stand, firmly if necessary.
They certainly do now.
Geoffrey Ingersoll is managing editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation. He is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War. He has reported on the military and national security for more than a decade, ranging from Afghanistan and Iraq to the DMZ in South Korea.