On Tuesday, the Russian–backed Syrian regime killed more than 80 people, including children, with chemical weapons. Two days later the U.S. struck a Syrian air base in an act of reprisal and deterrence.
This attack was morally justified. Bashar Assad’s barbarous recourse to sarin gas, but his latest mass atrocity, violated a 2013 agreement between his regime, the United States, and Russia to forswear chemical weapons. One must consider how we got here, and what must come next. An airstrike is a tactic, not a strategy, and the tragedy of Syria combines the gravest moral considerations with agonizing geopolitical complexities aggravated by prior American mistakes.
Rightly, President Trump expressed his horror at the vicious slaughter of “innocent babies,” proclaiming that “my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.” But there was something alarmingly self-referential in his performance, the situational empathy of a narcissist piggybacking on televised tragedy. For what, besides Trump, had changed? Assad has been butchering his people for years, and Trump’s every word about Syria before that moment had licensed him to continue.
Characteristically, Trump shifted blame to Barack Obama. In hindsight, Obama’s 2013 decision not to enforce to a “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons encouraged the regime to create a charnel house. This fed a geopolitical and humanitarian nightmare propelling the wave of refugees now destabilizing Europe.
But where was Trump? From 2013 on, he repeatedly disparaged intervening in Syria or trying to create safe zones for civilians. He said Assad was not our “problem’’ — after all, “Russia is on the side of Assad, and Russia wants to get rid of ISIS as much as we do... Let Syria and ISIS fight. Why do we care?”
His inauguration made this viewpoint American policy. The new administration explicitly disclaimed regime change, or any particular interest in Syria’s civil war — our priority was ISIS. As for Assad, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said his future “would be decided by the Syrian people” – by plebiscite, one assumes. Never mind that the Syrian regime inflamed terrorism and instability through a strategy of mass homicide, a perpetual war crime abetted by Russia.
About this, Trump said nothing.
That is reprehensible. In 2015 Russia had intervened militarily to save Assad from being toppled, and vetoed a UN resolution to punish Syria for using chlorine-filled barrel bombs. Russia owns a piece of every Syrian death perpetrated by Assad.
No matter. Trump proposed to partner with Putin in fighting ISIS, ignoring that Russia’s military activities were directed at other forces battling Assad — further exacerbating the threat of terrorism. No surprise that Russia has condemned the American attack and suspended a 2015 agreement designed to minimize the risk of conflict between American and Russian aircraft operating over Syria. As ever, Russia’s priority is protecting Assad.
So what is our strategy — let alone our policy — toward Assad and Russia? And what is their moral foundation?
Tillerson now intimates that there is no future for Assad. But he also suggests that our attack does not signal a change in America’s military posture toward Syria. So is this a one-time event, a gratifying distraction for Trump from domestic travail — which, at most, augurs other sporadic reactions to the unpredictable? Or is there now a sustained American purpose to affect Syria for the better?
The moral basis is a recognized international doctrine — “the responsibility to protect,” which holds that the world community should protect civilians from genocide, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. Never in recent decades has there been a clearer case than Syria.
The complexity lies within Syria itself, fractured by contending forces with conflicting aims. A comprehensive settlement among these parties is, in the foreseeable future, beyond reach. The question is whether some interim basis exists for stabilizing Syria and relieving human misery.
Because Trump acted, America has Russia’s attention. Good. Clearly, Russia failed to enforce its own agreement to deprive Assad of chemical weapons. His latest use implicates Russia in brutality which inflames Sunni Muslims throughout the world, including Russia itself. Putin cares nothing for humanity, but he has a jeweler’s eye for self-interest.
To start, Trump must persuade him that danger lies in confrontation between America and Russia, and therefore in supporting Assad’s efforts to slaughter his way to survival, creating further terrorism and exacerbating the risk of wider conflict. And, beyond that, to try through careful diplomacy to de-escalate risk and ameliorate the Syrian tinderbox.
One possibility, however complex, is negotiating zones of influence where civilians might find safety, secured by a ceasefire guaranteed by the outside parties operating in Syria. Whatever the parameters, relieving the misery serves humanity and prudence. The alternative is more images like we saw on Tuesday, with worse to follow.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Boston Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.