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On Syria, Trump is worse than Obama

For a brief moment, it looked as if there really was a new sheriff in town. A little more than two months into Donald...

Posted: Mar 29, 2018 10:20 AM
Updated: Mar 29, 2018 10:20 AM

For a brief moment, it looked as if there really was a new sheriff in town. A little more than two months into Donald Trump's presidency, Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad, unleashed one of his trademark chemical attacks on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria. Scores of civilians were killed, and Trump saw images of children choking to death. He then appeared determined to show the world that the new presidency would be nothing like the old one.

Within 48 hours, Trump spoke to the nation. "My fellow Americans," he said gravely, "Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. ... It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack."

Trump, who had endlessly criticized Barack Obama for failing to enforce his "red line" in Syria and said he would not "let [Assad] get away with what he's tried to do," drew his own red line. He ordered a missile attack on the airbase from where the attack was launched, and declared, "It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons."

The notion that Trump was bringing a new and coherent policy to America's role in Syria quickly evaporated. In an interview describing the events a few days later, he recalled having dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago. We had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you've ever seen and President Xi was enjoying it."

He proudly told Xi the United States had "just fired 59 missiles ... heading to Iraq," mistaking the name of the target country.

The strike in Syria, it soon became apparent, was not the opening salvo of a new and coherent policy. It was more reminiscent of a rich kid playing with a new toy.

I was never a fan of Obama's approach to the war in Syria. I wrote about it repeatedly, and I take no satisfaction in noting that events proved me right. Everything about the Syrian civil war turned into a worst-case scenario for the Syrian people, for the Middle East and for a surprisingly large part of the world.

Hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions displaced. Mass flows of refugees, coupled with the brutality of ISIS, contributed to the rise of the anti-immigrant far right in Europe. The war removed the taboo over the use of chemical weapons, and it fortified the worst players in the region, Iran and Hezbollah, while opening the doors to Russia's re-entry as a major actor in the Middle East.

Obama declared in 2011 that Assad should step down, but then did little to help those who wanted to make it happen. When Obama acted, he did so hesitantly.

His warning that the United States would respond if Assad used chemical weapons -- his famed red line -- turned into an embarrassment when it was not enforced after Russia secured a phony deal to remove Assad's banned weapons. In my view, Obama failed miserably in Syria.

But while Obama's approach was bad. Trump is much worse.

Trump's Syria policy is a muddle, but somehow the deaths of "beautiful babies" no longer prompt a reaction from Trump.

And Syrians are still dying. By one count, 39,000 were killed last year.

If Obama made the United States take a step back as a major player in the Middle East, Trump all but surrendered much of the country to Russia and Iran, countries that have saved Assad -- ensuring he will remain their loyal, deeply indebted ally.

On ISIS, Obama promised to "degrade and destroy" the terrorist organization. Trump followed that plan, carrying out more aggressive bombings facilitated by a diminished concern with civilian casualties. ISIS has been removed from the territory it controlled, as the policy that Obama launched and Trump intensified yields results.

The United States keeps about 2,000 troops in northeastern Syria, but America is concerned only with terrorism, while Russia, Iran, and now Turkey, throw roots into Syrian soil.

Under Trump, Washington betrayed the Syrian Kurds, the fighters that made it possible to crush ISIS. The United States worked with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, commanded by the Kurdish militia. But when Turkey -- which views these Kurds as enemies -- launched its forces along with rebel groups to remove the Kurds from areas they controlled, the United States did little to stop it. Trump meekly urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to "de-escalate." Erdogan ignored him.

Some Kurdish fighters left their US-supported positions in the anti-ISIS campaign to try to save their people. But now Erdogan is triumphant about Turkey's victory over the Kurds in the city of Afrin, while civilians flee by the thousands and the city is looted by the victors.

Sure, the choice between a NATO ally and a Kurdish rebel group presented a challenge. But you can be sure the impact of America's betrayal will be a lasting and harmful one.

The rest of Syria, meanwhile, is steadily being conquered by Assad, who is bombing hospitals in East Ghouta and elsewhere, still using banned weapons.

And the worst may be yet to come. This war has made Iran and its ally, Hezbollah, a much more influential and hardened force on the border with two US allies, Israel and Jordan. And it has made Russia, a country flouting international norms, the main non-Middle Eastern power broker in the region.

The rise of Iran and Hezbollah means there is an extremely high likelihood that another war will break out in the Middle East, this one involving Israel and Iran.

At this stage, the minimum that America should be doing is deploying a smart, well-planned, diplomatic offensive to help shape a stable Middle East in the aftermath of the Syrian war. But under Trump, American diplomacy is in shambles. The State Department has shriveled, and those working in the administration are busy protecting their careers.

If Trump's Syria policy has seemed inconsistent until now, it is likely to take yet another turn with his new choices for secretary of state and national security adviser, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, respectively. They are both hawkish on Iran and Russia and may well disagree with Trump's apparent willingness to relinquish US influence to Tehran and Moscow. But Trump, of course, is the President.

Trump was right that Obama failed on Syria. But, so far, this new sheriff has proven much worse than the old one.

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