Assad, Sarin Gas, Putin and Trump: A Conspiracy Theory
How are we to interpret recent events in Syria? The official White House version is simple:
- President Donald Trump used to be opposed to American intervention in that civil war.
- But then Bashir Assad dropped sarin gas bombs on his own people.
- And the President was so upset by the images of dead and suffering little children that he changed his mind; hence the missiles.
In order to process this version of the story we need to be very clear whom we are dealing with: namely, Donald J. Trump, whose relationship to “truth” is shaky. I don’t think even his biggest supporters would challenge the assertion that Trump has repeatedly stated untruths over the years—untruths calculated to help him and hurt his enemies. The best his surrogates can do is grin and say, “Well, that’s Trump—but you have to focus on what he does, not what he says.”
I would argue that so vast has been Trump’s trove of untruths—more commonly called “lies”—that we really need to back up and question each of the three assertions of the White House version. I accept (a), that Trump long was opposed to intervention in Syria, or, frankly, anywhere else: isolationism was part of his “America First” shtick. But when we get to (b) and (c), the official Trump version suffers from serious deficiencies.
Part (b) assumes several so-far unproven assertions. First, that sarin gas was dropped. Have we seen any evidence of this? It’s been widely reported, but we don’t know for sure, and won’t know, until a reputable outside agency (probably the U.N.) establishes the facts. Even if it turns out that sarin was used, how do we know it was Assad who ordered it? He says he didn’t. Putin says he didn’t. Granted, there’s not much reason to believe anything Assad or Putin says, but there’s also not much reason to believe anything Trump says. So we really need an objective investigation.
Why would Putin call for a U.N. investigation into the incident, if in fact his ally, Assad, dropped the bombs, purportedly with Putin’s approval (at least, that’s what the White House asserts)? What would this incident have gained for Assad? What would it have gained for Putin? For Assad, if he really did drop the sarin, it was incredibly stupid. Militarily, it achieved nothing, and further taints his international reputation, and could lead to an indictment for war crimes before an International Court of Justice. For Putin, this also tarnishes his reputation, since Russia was supposed to be a guarantor of the no-chemicals policy in Syria. So it doesn’t make any sense for either of them—Assad or Putin—to have done something so self-damaging.
Or does it? Remember this is all occurring against the backdrop of something even bigger: RussiaGate. Everything goes back to the central questions: What was Trump’s relationship (financial, political, personal) to Putin and other high Russian officials? What were the relationships of Trump’s friends and business associates? Did Trump or his friends know of, or collude with, the successful Russian attempt to undermine our election? So serious are the implications for Trump that we have to at least accept the possibility that he will do anything in his power—and he’s now the most powerful person in the world–to keep the combined Congressional and FBI investigations from bearing fruit.
This is why “wag the dog” theories have proliferated this week, including from me. Now ask yourself—in the light of all this—if the following is at least a possibility. Trump needs to change the subject, and fast, away from RussiaGate and some of the other embarrassing incidents that have caused his poll numbers to plummet to record lows. His main thing is to distance himself from Putin and Russia—to show Americans that all his bromance with Putin was just silly talk, and we shouldn’t worry about it. Trump has to have some sort of contact with Putin (I would assume that the President of the United States and the President of Russia can talk on a secure hotline anytime they want.) Trump tells Putin he’s in a bind: Trump’s ties with Russia are being revealed, and are likely to turn into a major crisis for him and his regime, as well as for the Russians. So both Trump and Putin need something, anything, to deflect attention away from the probes, and swing public opinion around. Putin has an idea: Let’s invent something to disagree about. What if some sarin can be arranged to be dropped on a Syrian village? Trump is intrigued; his always scheming mind immediately sees the possibilities. He can kill two or three birds with one stone: change the subject. Be seen as a compassionate man, the enforcer of world peace. And be seen as no friend of Putin (as Eric Trump so clumsily reminded us the other day.)
Trump can even, if he wants to, use this “pivot” as an excuse to dump his more radical advisors—paging Steve Bannon–who are no longer of use to him, and seem to be in increasing disfavor, even among Republicans.
But how does this help Putin? It doesn’t, not in the short run. It hurts him. Both he and Trump are going to have to pretend to have broken their bromance; both of are going to have to ratchet up the rhetoric on each other, back to Cold War levels, at least for a while. But in the long run, this helps Putin, because it prevents the Trump-Russia ties from being exposed, and helps keep Trump, who may well be a Russian plant, in power. We have to assume, of course, that those Trump-Russia ties are so deep, so ugly, so devastating, that keeping them from the light of day is uppermost in both leaders’ minds. But that assumption is easy to make: Why else would Trump refuse to release his taxes? Why else would he be fighting so fiercely to keep the investigations from proceeding?
And Assad? Poor Bashir. Putin has left him twisting, twisting slowly in the wind. He’s getting worldwide condemnation for something he may not even have done. But these people—Assad, Putin, Trump—are grownups, used to playing the game. Putin tells his ally, Assad, “Bashir, you have to take one for the team. I need for you to do this.” Bashir: “But Vladimir, you’re asking me to take the blame for something really bad.” Putin: “True. But I’ll have your back. This will all blow over—and eventually, when it does, I’ll still be here, and so will Trump. And we will not forget you.”
Bashir: “So be it.”
Trump: “So be it.”
Putin: “So be it.”
It sounds like a movie, this little conspiracy theory of mine. Only it’s not Hollywood; it’s real life. And in his legerdemain of trying to convince us he’s really not a friend of Russia, Trump might just make a misstep that gets us into war.