Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lock hands during a group photo, Ankara, Turkey, April 4, 2018 (Pool photo  by Tolga Bozoglu via AP).

One of the more intriguing aspects of the enormously complicated war in Syria is the position of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose allegiance and convictions appear to shift with developments on the ground. Two weeks ago, Erdogan hosted a summit meeting in Ankara to discuss Syria’s future. For a photo-op, he literally joined hands with the presidents of Russia and Iran, the main backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Erdogan not long ago was still condemning as a “terrorist” and the roadblock to peace in Syria. It was a gesture, it seemed, that Moscow, Tehran and Ankara now […]

China’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ma Zhaoxu, speaks during a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, New York, April 13, 2018 (AP photo by Julie Jacobson).

The 105 cruise missiles that the United States, France and the United Kingdom fired at Syria late last week, in response to another suspected chemical weapons attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, deepened the divide between Western powers and Russia over how to approach the next stage of Syria’s war. But amid divisions playing out both at the United Nations and on the ground in Syria, China sits in a precarious and uniquely advantageous position. As an actor that strictly denounces the use of chemical weapons and upholds the principle of nonintervention, Beijing condemned both the chemical attack outside Damascus […]

Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, the secretary-general of the Arab League, left, and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir attend a press conference at the end of the Arab summit in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, April 15, 2018 (AP photo by Amr Nabil).

The early reactions of Syria’s neighbors to the joint strikes by the United States, France and the United Kingdom on three chemical weapons-related facilities last Friday night fell into familiar patterns. As the reality of the very limited nature of the attack sinks in, expect the full range of responses, capturing the deep ambivalence in the Middle East toward American power. Most countries in the region resent excessive demonstrations of what they see as American arrogance, but they miss American force when it is not there. Some even hoped in vain that the strikes would signal a new willingness for […]

Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., Vassily Nebenzia, left, watches as the ambassadors of Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States vote on a resolution at a Security Council meeting on Syria, April 14, 2018 (AP photo by Mary Altaffer).

The United Nations Security Council needs some quiet time. The past week was the most fraught in the council’s recent history, as the U.S. and its friends went all-out to shame Russia over its Syrian ally’s use of chemical weapons in Douma. The Russians responded with a furious barrage of denials, accusing the Westerners of whipping up the controversy to justify a military response. The two sides met almost daily to berate each other in baroque terms, with U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley claiming the Russians’ hands were “covered in the blood of Syrian children.” By the end of the week, […]

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jamie Jarrard thanks Manbij Military Council commander Muhammed Abu Adeel during a visit to a small outpost near the town of Manbij, Syria, Feb. 7, 2018 (AP photo by Susannah George).

A little more than a year into his administration, President Donald Trump is facing a major decision on America’s next steps in Syria. His predecessor, Barack Obama, first sent U.S. troops into the country’s civil war to help local opposition forces defeat the self-styled Islamic State. Trump then increased the number of U.S. forces on the ground there. But now that the Islamic State has been driven back in Syria, losing much of the territory it once claimed as its “caliphate,” Trump has indicated that he might withdraw U.S. forces “very soon.” Officials in the Pentagon advocate a different approach. […]

A U.S. soldier sits on an armored vehicle on a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters in Manbij, northern Syria, April 4, 2018 (AP photo by Hussein Malla).

U.S. President Donald Trump has promised that Syria, Russia and Iran will pay a price for the latest use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria’s brutal civil war. But if he does decide to carry out punitive strikes for the chemical attack in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma, they will do little to satisfy advocates for a more forceful U.S. involvement on humanitarian grounds. Nor are they likely to deter future outrages, if the missile strike Trump ordered last year after a previous use of chemical weapons is any indication. More importantly, they will leave unresolved the geopolitical […]

A Syrian boy rides his bike through the destruction of the once rebel-held Jalloum neighborhood in eastern Aleppo, Syria, Jan. 20, 2017 (AP photo by Hassan Ammar).

Carl von Clausewitz, the eminent 19th-century Prussian military theorist, believed war could best be understood as the interplay of three powerful forces: hatred, rationality that focuses hatred on political objectives, and chance. Chance made war unpredictable, but rationality, by making killing a means to an end rather than purely an act of hatred, kept it from becoming even more violent than it otherwise might be. This perspective reflected Clausewitz’s personal experience in the Napoleonic Wars. At that time, the military strategists of Europe’s great powers attempted to avoid killing civilians whenever possible, at least when fighting each other. Although the […]

A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter carrying U.S. advisers and Afghan trainees takes off at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, March 19, 2018 (AP photo by Rahmat Gul).

In rapid succession, America’s mercurial commander-in-chief has changed U.S. policy toward two of the world’s most tragic and intractable conflicts. In Afghanistan and Syria, President Donald Trump has simultaneously ramped up U.S. involvement and insisted that America cut its losses and get out. In both cases, it is hard to track the true underlying strategy that would achieve some durable American objectives. Rather, he is approving policy tactics formulated to respond to worsening conditions on the ground and to the advice of his military commanders, who see the larger consequences of security setbacks. First, the facts. It was late last […]