First published in The Boston Globe.
In Syria, headlines tell us, America and its allies have all but terminated ISIS’s misbegotten “caliphate.” Thus does triumph conceal tragedy – and shame.
Recently, Donald Trump informed the United Nations that – despite an unprecedented flood of refugees from disaster – the United States would admit but few. Far better, he asserted, to help them “in their home region.” This from a president who would slash our budget for humanitarian assistance. But nothing better dramatizes his comprehensive callousness than the people of Syria.
The country is a charnel house. Half the population needs humanitarian aid simply to survive. Three million children are not attending school. Life expectancy has cratered by 15 years. Nearly a half-million Syrians have died; at least 1.5 million have been injured or disabled. Half of all Syrians are displaced; over 5 million are refugees from horror.
Trump refuses to admit a single one. As for helping Syrians in Syria, the dystopia of civil war renders this a heartless joke.
The brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad is slaughtering its way to survival amid a war of all against all – the government against its opponents, Shia against Sunni, Arab against Kurd, Sunni moderates versus extremists of various stripes. Assad is expanding his territory beyond the west. An Al Qaeda affiliate dominates the south. Noncontiguous chunks of the north are held by Syrian Kurds. In the east, the United States and its allies are concluding the devastating war against ISIS, whose forces leave mass slaughter in its wake.
For Syrians, the defeat of ISIS changes little. The lethal divisions that plague it continue, roiled by outside forces. Russia, Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, are bent on Assad’s survival. The Saudis and Turks want him gone. The Kurds want to be left alone. The Turks and Iranians hate and fear the Kurds. The Saudis and Iranians are blood enemies. The Shia and Sunni are at odds. A comprehensive settlement among these parties is, in the foreseeable future, inconceivable.
No party, foreign or domestic, has a plan that transcends self-interest — let alone to restore a viable country whose citizens live safely. Indeed, Assad has played on ethnic tensions and fears of extremist Islam in order to maintain power. The only likelihood is that Assad will rule a violent and truncated Syria, a dubious “homeland” for those he has displaced. While Trump did not create this nightmare, he has no answer save for shunning those who flee it.
In April, professing horror at the use of poison gas, he launched cruise missiles at a government airfield. In Syria, nothing changed — six months later, this spasm epitomizes Trump’s emptiness.
His only follow-up was incoherent bluster; our purported goals were mutable and contradictory. Within Trump’s administration, some asserted that our interests conflict with Russia and Iran; others imagined, without evidence, that they were our allies in fighting ISIS. Risibly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson divined that Russia shares our interests “in having Syria become a stable . . . unified place.” Throughout, cruise missiles notwithstanding, Trump has helped Assad remain in power.
As Russia and Iran consolidate their sway, Trump has no countervailing strategy. Indeed, he seems prepared to cede territory won from ISIS, in the words of his State Department, “to other countries and the host country” – effectively meaning Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
Last summer, Trump canceled an admittedly minimal program to stand up forces against the regime. We armed only those Syrian allies against ISIS who forswore fighting Assad. Despite Trump’s reckless denunciation of the Iran nuclear deal because of Iranian aggression, he watches in silence as Assad becomes a virtual client of Iran, cementing its stranglehold on Syria.
Effectively, Trump separated our war against ISIS in eastern Syria from any wider strategic or humanitarian concerns. Central to this effort was negotiating “de-confliction zones” with Russia to prevent clashes between Iran and our forces fighting ISIS. In return, Trump is giving Assad and Iranian militia carte blanche in subduing much of Syria by whatever means they choose — including ethnic cleansing — creating yet more refugees for America to reject. Here realpolitik meets the reprehensible.
The principal power defeating ISIS is the Syrian Democratic Forces, predominantly Kurdish, armed by the United States. To become a broader force against Assad, the SDF needs to incorporate more Arabs. Moreover, Turkey and Iran fear that Kurdish independence will inflame their restive Kurdish minorities. If, as seems likely, the United States abandons the SDF once it finishes ISIS, Assad and Iran will likely turn on the SDF and territory held by the Syrian Kurds. Yet more horror will follow.
Serious military strategists have advocated standing up a substantial American-backed opposition to Assad. But the American public is unlikely to support a costly effort that Trump has clearly rejected. Another proposal, establishing zones of influence, would require cooperation among the contestants and their patrons – as would any international effort to stabilize Syria. But such designs assume a military equilibrium that is nowhere in sight.
As long as Assad, Russia, and Iran can foresee expanding their territorial control with American acquiescence, peaceful solutions are doomed. The violence that is sure to follow will create still more refugees who will need American assistance.
Geopolitics is hard. As president, Trump can choose to avoid the deadly Syrian quagmire. But he cannot then shun those seeking refuge from its misery without further shaming his country — and himself.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Boston Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.