Donald Trump has at last been won over to the consensus that grips the Washington foreign policy establishment: Bashar al-Assad must go.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? As far as morality and international law are concerned, of course Assad must go. He’s repeatedly gassed the children Trump mourned as “beautiful babies”, and is killing far more Syrians than the so-called Islamic State (IS).
The most enthusiastic Western advocates of removing Assad form a liberal tendency and have been arguing for some form of intervention in Syria ever since the war began in earnest. They are opposed by more realist voices, who exhort them to remember the lessons of Iraq before getting militarily involved. Those on this side point to Syria’s fractured and often radical opposition, the regime’s formidable and battle-hardened forces, and the risks of starting a proxy conflict between the world’s great powers.
In combination, these two tendencies have landed US and UK foreign policy in an awkward gap between ends and means: Assad must go, but the military means required to remove him are off limits. This contradictory approach helps no one, least of all the Syrian people. The UN Security Council remains divided, and a deadly stalemate persists on the ground.
And now, after his unexpected strikes, Trump faces the same problem. His secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was dispatched to Moscow to reiterate that the US considers Assad’s ousting a non-negotiable condition. Russia is hardly expected to change its pro-Assad stance in response.
And so the impasse persists. The West has indeed learnt important lessons from the quagmire it created in Iraq, but those same lessons have all but immobilised its foreign policy at a critical moment. It feels good to demand that a brutal dictator should no longer be allowed to rule, but insisting on it while failing to back it up with action has helped to prolong unimaginable suffering.
Stuck in the middle
Even in these dark times, it’s just about possible to recall the intoxicating optimism of the 2011 Arab Uprisings. Many Syrian protesters and their Western supporters imagined that Assad would inevitably fall. But he clung to power, and any sense of optimism ebbed away. Instead, the West and everyday Syrians alike worried that Syria’s moderate opposition forces were being overtaken and even replaced by Islamist rebel fighters.
Things reached a new low in August 2013, when Assad used sarin gas in an attack near Damascus that killed as many as 1,300 Syrians. Barack Obama had previously named mass chemical weapons use as a “red line” that might trigger some sort of Western intervention – but it wasn’t to be.
Soon after the Ghouta attack, the UK parliament narrowly voted down David Cameron’s call for a military response, and Obama subsequently opted not to enforce the now notorious red line he himself had drawn. The US and Russia struck a deal with Assad to dismantle his chemical weapons – a deal now rendered moot in the most appalling way.
In themselves, Trump’s airstrikes will make little difference to the conflict. As of the start of 2016, 11.5% of Syrians had been killed or injured since 2011. But chemical weapons are responsible for a mere fraction of this damage – and by so dramatically changing tack in the face of a chemical attack, the Trump administration is falling into the same trap as the Obama administration.
If it implicitly frames the conflict as somehow tolerable so long as chemical weapons aren’t used, the US risks enabling and legitimising the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by other weapons. If Trump is genuinely interested in solving the crisis, it is time to finally confront the contradiction that has hamstrung Western Syria policy for close to six years.
Assad is clearly despicable, but the only atrocities worse than those his government has already committed are those yet to come. There are two ways to avert them: either Assad is deposed, probably via US-led military intervention, or some political accord is struck to allow him to stay in exchange for a permanent ceasefire.
It’s crucial not to lose sight of the central priority here: ending one of the world’s most intractable crises and civil wars. If Assad really has to go, the US and its allies must do what’s necessary to get rid of him themselves; if they don’t have the will to do it, they must accept that for the time being at least, he’s here to stay.