Though Obama bears responsibility for the horror in Syria, the Trump administration’s Russia tilt means it owns the mess it inherited and must respond accordingly.
The timing for the Trump administration couldn’t be worse. Just days after statements from the White House as well as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley made it clear that the U.S. accepted the permanence of the Assad regime in Syria, Damascus reminded the world of its awful nature. The Syrian government dropped a poison-gas bomb on a hospital, taking the lives of dozens, including eleven children. As reports of the attack spread, fingers began pointing at Trump.
Senator John McCain wasn’t alone when he made it clear that the statements from the administration — including Tillerson’s astonishing assertion that the tyrannized Syrian people would determine their own future — provided encouragement for Assad to do his worst, safe in the knowledge that the U.S. didn’t care what happened in that tortured country.
McCain is right to the extent that the U.S. does bear a great deal of the responsibility for what happened in Syria in recent years as Assad has gained the upper hand in that country’s civil war with the help of his Russian and Iranian allies. But even if the main culprit here is President Obama, that doesn’t get the administration off the hook. The gas attack is a wakeup call to Trump that he has to choose between two of his foreign policy priorities: better relations with Russia and getting tough with Iran. If the administration doesn’t begin to respond, the mess in Syria will only get worse, and blaming Obama won’t be enough to avoid complicity in one of the great human-rights catastrophes of the 21st century.
The administration’s attempt to divert attention from its own silence about Assad by pointing to its predecessor has some merit. The Syrian debacle didn’t merely unfold on Obama’s watch; his actions and statements materially contributed to a situation in which Bashar Assad’s barbarous regime acts as if it has carte blanche from the international community to commit unspeakable atrocities.
Obama’s initial reaction to the 2011 Arab Spring protests in Syria was to encourage opposition to Assad. As the situation erupted into violence between rebels and the government, Obama made it clear Assad had to go. Historians will debate, as analysts did at the time, whether Western intervention to arm the more moderate rebels would have proved decisive and ended the conflict before Islamist groups became major players there. But what we do know is that Western inaction led to a civil war that quickly spiraled out of control and allowed radical Islamist groups to assume a major role in the opposition to a hated regime.
The turning point was in 2013 when Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. Prior to that, Obama had stated that their use would constitute the crossing of a “red line” that would mandate an American response. But without a coherent plan of action and faced with opposition from those who thought two Middle East wars was enough (a group that included one Donald J. Trump), Obama backed down. That was more than one of the most humiliating moments in the history of American foreign policy. It also provided an opening for Russia — which, along with Iran, was already aiding Assad — to embark on a full-scale intervention in Syria. Obama made a deal by which the Russians would supervise the collection of all of Assad’s illegal weaponry. But that flimsy agreement was never fully enforced, and Damascus has continued to employ gas against Syrian civilians.
Obama’s retreat went farther than just the “red line” fiasco. Despite sometimes paying lip service to the need for Assad’s ouster, he fully acquiesced to Russia’s assertion that its Syrian client fell under Moscow’s sphere of control. This not only marked a beginning of the realization of Vladimir Putin’s dream to reassemble the old Soviet empire. It also was part of a U.S. retreat from the Middle East; in 2011, Obama had completed the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq. The vacuum left by that decision provided the opening for the emergence of ISIS, as the Islamist group assumed control of large parts of both Syria and Iraq.
While the U.S. eventually deployed forces to fight ISIS, the initial decision to back away from conflict with Assad has ensured the continuance of that conflict. Assad and his allies have concentrated their military efforts on destroying rebels — moderates and radicals — not associated with ISIS. That left the Islamic State as the sole force in the field perceived to be defending Sunnis against the minority Alawite regime and Iranian and Lebanese Shiites (Tehran’s Hezbollah auxiliaries who were also deployed in Syria) as well as the Russians. So long as that remains the case, ISIS can count on support from Syrians who have good reason to hate Assad and his friends more than they do the equally barbarous Islamists.
Trump inherited a mess to which there are no easy or attractive options for the U.S. Trump’s foreign-policy team is simply stating the facts when they observe that Assad and his allies have already won the civil war and that there is no viable option for forcing him from power even if ISIS and pockets of rebels are still the field. But that does not excuse a policy of inaction from the administration.
This is a moment when the president needs to make it clear to Russia that if it is truly interested in better relations with the United States, it must put a leash on its Syrian client. Trump can start by insisting that Putin finally make good on the deal he struck with Obama to confiscate Assad’s chemical weapons. Equally important would be an effort to make it plain to Moscow that it cannot have normal, let alone friendly relations with the West while still acting as an ally of an Iran that is using the war in Syria to pursue its goal of regional hegemony.
Trump must understand that thinking that Russia can help him achieve his goal of defeating ISIS makes no sense so long as Moscow is in bed with Iran and Assad. Given Obama’s mistakes and Trump’s criticisms of past U.S. interventions in the Middle East, the administration has little leverage in Syria. But merely waving the white flag on the issue as it did last week only makes an already terrible situation even worse.
Given the reports about back-channel negotiations with Russia about breaking its ties with Iran, it may be that the administration understands that Trump’s contradictory rhetoric about the two countries must be resolved. Merely focusing on Obama’s mistakes is no longer enough. Like it or not, by signaling his desire for a new beginning with Assad’s Russian enablers, Trump is linked to what is happening in Syria. This is a moment for the president, who is not generally shy about sounding off on his views of the world, to say something that puts the onus on Putin for Assad’s atrocities and makes clear that the U.S. won’t continue to turn a blind eye to the horror there. If he doesn’t, his critics will be right when they say he, along with Obama, now owns the Syrian disaster.
— Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review Online.
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