Foreign Relations & International Law

Trump Administration Sends Mixed Messages about Syria Strike, Christians Targeted in Egypt, and a New Proposal for Libya

J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, April 11, 2017, 12:55 PM

Trump Administration Sends Mixed Messages about Punitive Strike

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Trump Administration Sends Mixed Messages about Punitive Strike

The Assad regime in Syria launched a deadly chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, in northeast Syria, last Tuesday morning. Upwards of 80 people were killed from Sarin gas inhalation and more than 500 others experienced symptoms from being poisoned. It was the first documented chemical weapons attack carried out by the Assad regime since Donald Trump entered office in January. Then, on Thursday, the U.S. military launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria’s Al-Shayrat airbase, where U.S. intelligence officials say the Khan Sheikhoun attack originated. The attack appears to have done little damage—officials say the strikes deliberately avoided Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles over concerns about the agents being released into the air, and aircraft were landing on the unscathed runway within hours—but it marks a significant escalation in U.S. involvement in Syria. The Assad regime has not conducted another chemical strike in the past week, but pro-regime forces bombed rebels with incendiary bombs on Monday.

The Trump administration was clearly trying to send a message, but more than four days later now, it’s still not clear what that message is. The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman has noted at least five distinct Syria policies from administration officials in the past two weeks. On Thursday night, President Trump justified the strikes by stating that “it is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” and noting Syria’s violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and U.N. Security Council resolutions. But it is still unclear whether the strike on Thursday means that the Trump administration will be responding to other regime attacks on civilians with conventional weapons, or if the administration’s position on Assad is shifting. Members of the administration seem to be taking contradictory positions: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson initially emphasized that the strikes were a limited response to the chemical weapons attack and that there has been “no change to our military posture” in Syria, but today sounded more like U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who has taken a more aggressive position pushing for Assad’s removal. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Press Secretary Sean Spicer have both said the United States is prepared to escalate further, and McMaster framed the attack as a means to challenge Assad’s alliance with Russia. “What we are saying is other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions. Russia should ask themselves, 'What are we doing here?'" he said on Sunday. That’s a question Tillerson is expected to take with him to Moscow in meetings this week.

The limited nature of the strike also seems to be adding some confusion to the mixed signals. As a spokesman for Central Command noted on Twitter, the strike was not intended to make the airbase “inoperable,” just to “degrade” the regime’s “capability to perform chemical attacks.” Indeed, the limited damage evokes comments then-Secretary of State John Kerry made regarding the strikes that the Obama administration chose not to carry out in 2013 to enforce the chemical weapons redline. "We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria's civil war,” he said at the time. “That is exactly what we are talking about doing—unbelievably small, limited kind of effort." Kerry was ridiculed for the statement; critics argued that he was telegraphing how ineffective the planned response would be. Now similar strikes have occurred, and despite all the triumphalism the day after Thursday strikes, those original critics have a point: Punching holes in a few hangars and destroying a couple Syrian jets will not change Russia’s calculus for supporting Assad. Russia’s commitment is tied to strategic interests—maintenance of its last ally in the Arab Middle East and its basing contracts that allow it to project force in the eastern Mediterranean. It’s not leaving Syria without a fight, and the Trump administration does not seem to have reached a consensus about whether they’re willing to give it to them.

Another Attack Targets Christians in Egypt

The Islamic State has claimed credit for two attacks targeting Coptic Christian worshippers at Palm Sunday services in Egypt that killed 45 people over the weekend. The attacks could have been much deadlier. While the bomber in Tanta managed to slip past security and into the church, the other, in Alexandria targeting St. Mark’s Cathedral, detonated his explosives while passing through a metal detector; still other bombs were found that did not detonate.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi “declared a three-month state of emergency” after the attacks, the New York Times reported, though it appears he may have just renewed the state of emergency declared in 2014. As the Times noted, “it was not immediately clear what extra powers he required, given that his government enjoys largely unfettered powers, has already imprisoned or exiled thousands of political opponents, and oversees a Parliament that is dominated by his supporters.” Sisi also called for unity in the face of the attacks. “I won’t say those who fell are Christian or Muslim...I will say that they’re Egyptian,” he said in a speech.

Sisi’s popular appeal is largely bound up in his reputation as a strongman who can restore security after several restive years that have made an opening for extremist groups, including the Islamic State’s affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula. But Egyptian Christians, who have been targeted frequently in recent months, say Sisi has failed to live up to his promise. “Strict Muslims…are bombing our churches and killing us to put Sisi in an embarrassing situation: that he can't protect Copts,” one told the Los Angeles Times. “This will continue to happen because the state is not interested in protecting Christians, or anyone else for that matter. The police’s only job is to crush political opponents. They don’t care about the real terrorists,” another told the New York Times.

That suspicion is warranted, the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy’s Timothy Kaldas wrote on Monday. “Many in Egypt's Christian community should find official calls for unity disingenuous,” he said, comparing it to calls for “thoughts and prayers” after mass shootings in the United States. “Ultimately, however, the broader specter of religious discrimination that has long existed in Egyptian society will not have disappeared. Indeed, the exuberant expression of national unity will obfuscate and suffocate legitimate criticisms of discrimination against Egypt's Christians...The message of ‘now is not the time’ will repress doing something productive at precisely the right time, when society recognizes in its mourning the need for change.”

Trump Administration Considering Three People for Libya Envoy

Among the many diplomatic posts still awaiting a Trump administration appointee is the position of special envoy to Libya. It’s admittedly an unenviable job—Libya is divided among rival governments and militias, and the U.N.- and U.S.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) has little authority outside of Tripoli—but there appears to be some competition for the post. The Guardian reports that Phillip Escaravage, who worked in the U.S. intelligence community on Libya, is a favorite, and that Pete Hoekstra, a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is also being considered. A third contender is apparently Sebastian Gorka, the much-ridiculed Breitbart editor-turned-deputy assistant to the president working with Stephen Bannon’s in-house Strategic Initiatives Group think tank.

Gorka is known for his questionable foreign policy judgment, and his views on Libya are no exception. The Guardian spoke to a European diplomat who recounted a conversation in which Gorka suggested partitioning Libya into three parts based on Ottoman provinces, even sketching them on a napkin. “This is like a litmus test of how much you know about Libya,” Mattia Tolado, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Guardian in response to the story. “If...the only thing you know is that it was cut into three, then it shows you are clueless about the situation in Libya.”

Escaravage, whose family were early financial supporters of Trump’s campaign, has been rumored for the post since January, but there doesn’t seem to be much reporting about his views on the U.S. role in Libya. Hoekstra has a much clearer record on Libya that tracks closely with the Trump administration’s prioritization of political stability, distrust of any Islamist-tinged groups, and wariness of regime change; he wrote an entire book, Architects of Disaster: The Destruction of Libya, with the Investigative Project on Terrorism, that argued that the Gaddafi regime was a valuable ally in the war against jihadism and should never have been toppled. The common thread clear in Hoekstra and Gorka’s thoughts on Libya is the need for a strong hand to suppress Islamist militias in the country. The most obvious contender for that role is Gen. Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, who is supported by Egypt and Russia. As the Atlantic Council’s Elissa Miller wrote in January, “Strong ties between Trump, Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin could lead to a shift in US policy towards Libya in which the new US administration throws support behind Haftar and his forces. The abandonment of the UN-backed process that produced the GNA, as well the emboldening of Haftar and his anti-Islamist forces, would deal a heavy blow to the GNA’s shaky credibility and could produce further turmoil in the country.”

Whoever is selected for the role, and whatever their strategy may be, the situation in Libya remains fraught. The conflict remains stalemated but no one is ready to negotiate, Karim Mezran and Tolado wrote recently for the Atlantic Council’s MENASource blog. “Western Libya is too divided now to even think of negotiations for a comprehensive deal with Haftar,” they argue. “At this point, none of the belligerent parties can militarily outmatch the others, but each side is in a position where it thinks it can win and is unwilling to back down. It would not be unlikely to see a faction deciding to block all exports rather than compromising with its opponents.”

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare and a PhD candidate at Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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