Recent events have dragged the Syrian civil war once again to the center of the world’s attention. The first of these events was the recent meeting in Ankara, Turkey with Turkey’s leader, President Recep Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Conspicuously absent from that meeting was any representative from the United States, or, for that matter, from Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Interestingly, the meeting was entirely about how the Syrian civil war would end (so why was America and the Syrian leadership excluded?).
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump recently intimated, with the apparent destruction of the physical caliphate of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. military mission in Syria would be coming to an end. Soon, U.S. forces would be leaving Syria and could claim a decisive victory over their enemies—a nice change for our armed forces, after nearly two decades of unwinnable nation-building missions throughout the developing world.
That was before the apparent chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb or Douma. Reports are sketchy, but dozens of civilians reportedly were killed. It appears that forces loyal to the besieged Syrian strongman, Bashar al-Assad, perpetrated the chemical weapons attack.
Recall that around this time last year, Trump ordered a massive cruise missile strike against a Syrian air base for a similar chemical weapons attack. In light of the latest atrocity, the president’s hope to withdraw U.S. forces appears to be in jeopardy. And with the recent shakeup in the Trump Administration’s national security team, the real question is whether the president will be persuaded to reverse course and succumb to Washington war fever.
His tweet regarding the chemical weapons attack in Douma is instructive:
Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 8, 2018
Keep in mind that the president has never said he would abandon our campaign in Syria. He has argued consistently that whatever happens in Syria (or in foreign policy more generally), he will protect American interests. The president appears to be taking his larger desires for a reduction in America’s commitment in Syria (as well as his correct hope for healthier relations with nuclear-armed Russia) and aligning them with the reality on the ground. Fact is, the president has committed American policy to retaliating against the genocidal mania that Assad routinely exhibits.
Fortunately, the United States can retaliate against Assad’s attack and still reduce its military footprint in Syria. There is a wide chasm (that needn’t be crossed) between striking back at Assad’s forces for their illegal actions and expanding America’s mission in Syria to include regime change.
After all, when President Trump authorized the greater commitment of American forces to Syria last year, he gave our troops easier rules of engagement to follow—and narrowed the scope of their mission. Whereas former President Obama wanted American forces to effectively topple the well-entrenched Assad, Trump merely wanted to decimate jihadists who composed the bulk of the “resistance” movement against Assad.
Under Trump, terror groups like ISIS and Al Nusra—direct threats to the United States, its allies, and overall regional stability—were the primary targets of the American military campaign in Syria. Even though ISIS has around 2,000 dead-enders scattered about in Syria, the bulk of the American mission there is over. Respecting the remaining American forces in Syria, the classic Pentagon urge to “use-it-or-lose it” must be overcome by removing those forces from an unwinnable, endlessly expanding conflict.
The president should strike back against Bashar al-Assad for having committed this brazen act of genocide. But, he should also go to Putin and Erdogan—cutting out the Iranians completely—and offer to reduce American presence in Syria in exchange for them forcing Assad (and Iran) to end the civil war peacefully.
The president has mostly defeated America’s enemies in Syria. We need to stop trying to remake foreign countries in our image, no matter how despicable the regime may be. It doesn’t work and it weakens us.
Photo credit: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images
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