April is indeed the cruelest month, especially for despots who have massacred five hundred thousand of their people and turned four million citizens into refugees. For the countless Syrians displaced by Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs, or widowed because of Assad’s attacks on hospitals and relief workers, or made childless because of Assad’s sarin gas attacks, April has brought catharsis. Donald Trump’s decision to strike Shayrat airbase last night sent a direct message to the Syrian dictator that the days of casually dismembering his country are over.
In a microcosm of the upside-down world we now inhabit, it took all of one week for six years of U.S. policy to flip not once but twice. Last Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, said that it was no longer U.S. policy to remove Assad from power. Three days later, an emboldened Assad used chemical weapons on children, killing over eighty people and injuring hundreds more. The Pentagon had observed the Syrian aircraft on U.S. radars and watched them drop the bombs, making the American government a direct witness to the psychopathic use of chemical weapons by a deranged tyrant. Donald Trump, ever so adaptable, immediately switched course and ordered the strikes.
It would be perfectly reasonable to view all this as a crass political move by an embattled president. With floundering poll numbers and repeated defeats, Trump may have sent those 59 missiles to an easy target just to boost his popularity and distract the country. Another plausible explanation is that the mercurial Trump saw the pictures of children writhing, suffocating, and being ripped apart by bodily convulsions, and the commander-in-chief retaliated. One can question the politics and still laud the decision.
The question now is what do next, but before we can countenance the future, we must understand the past.
Trump inherited a Syrian mess that was caused, in large part, by American inaction and confusion under the Obama administration. It was Obama who publicly called for Assad to step aside in August of 2011; Assad replied by stepping up his attacks against civilians, sending his sectarian Shabiha militia to massacre Sunnis. It was Obama who declared a red line in 2012, which Assad crossed one year later by gassing 1,400 people in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
Rather than act on his threat and deter Assad from using lethal gasses again, Obama backed off the red line and pursued a Russian initiative to remove Assad’s chemical weapons. Under the deal brokered by John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Assad would escape punishment if he gave up his illegal weapons and signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. The optics benefitted everyone involved: Obama could claim a diplomatic victory, Putin could assert world leadership, and Assad could continue killing civilians by conventional means. There was just one problem: Assad never gave up his chemical weapons.
It should not have come as news to anyone this week that the Syrian regime deployed sarin gas. The Wall Street Journal reported back in 2015 that Assad had manipulated the weapons inspectors and limited what they could see. Assad not only kept his chlorine gas under that fatuous deal—a substance the regime used time and again with a muted response from Washington—but Assad also kept more dangerous agents like sarin and VX. Far from being deterred, Assad was strengthened: A punitive response to an egregious war crime became a sort of rehabilitation program where the murderous war criminal was released and told to behave. I recall a conversation I had two years ago with the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, a brave and humane diplomat who had resigned in protest at the Obama administration’s vacillations. He told me that the Obama White House knew that Assad would use chemical weapons again. It was not ignorance but calculation that led Obama to go easy on Assad.
Opponents of U.S. action in Syria point to the unintended consequences of any intervention. But inaction and indifference carry their own consequences, and it is hard to believe that a more robust U.S. response earlier on would have given us a worse situation than the one that currently exists. Five hundred thousand people have been killed, most of them by Assad. The United Nations has accused Assad of the “crime of extermination.” The photographs of Assad’s industrial program of mass torture, the images of dead Syrian boys washing ashore, the videos of asphyxiating children—none were enough to make the White House reconsider its position. The non-policy of inaction made everyone complicit as bystanders to Bashar al-Assad’s genocide.
For years, the American media has focused inordinate attention on ISIS when the Assad regime has been the cause of extremism. It was Assad who had created the refugee crisis that Obama wished to ameliorate, a crisis now destabilizing both Europe and the Middle East. Consider the level of suffering that must be endured for a Syrian family to pack their things and walk out of the Middle East on foot, seeing makeshift boats and hazardous waters as better alternatives to the Assad regime’s hell. (Incidentally, President Trump now bears the distinct irony of both banning Syrian refugees and attacking the military that made them refugees in the first place.)
The obsessive focus on ISIS—motivated by irrational fears of brown people—obscured the reasons why ISIS existed. It was Bashar al-Assad who released extremists from prison early on in the Syrian conflict, ensuring that they would flood the secular opposition. It was Bashar al-Assad who purchased oil from ISIS and ignored ISIS on the battlefield, allowing the Caliphate to grow. The State Department’s own spokeswoman said as much back in 2014: “The Assad regime played a key role in ISIL’s rise. The Syrian regime fostered the growth of terrorist networks.” If even half as much commentary that was devoted to ISIS was instead refocused on ISIS’s enabler, the magnitude of horror in Syria might be lessened.
It is too soon to tell whether Trump’s airstrikes are an aberration or whether they signify a new policy. The fact that Trump acted at all is a radical break with six years of futile precedent. In the coming days, a debate will ensue about the merits of striking Assad, and one of the arguments the critics will make is that the world now has to choose between Assad and ISIS. This is a false choice, and is in fact the narrative that Assad himself has been propagating. During my time as a legal clerk in the UN office charged with finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis, I saw numerous pragmatic and principled plans that would achieve a political transition in Syria. One of them is outlined here.
The core strategy from now on should be to retain the shell of the Assad regime, staff a new government with both existing government officers as well as Syrian opposition members, unify the factions on the ground to attack ISIS, and at a later date, draft an inclusive, democratic constitution. Essential to this, however, would be Assad stepping down. He has killed too many people and is guilty of too many crimes, and the opposition would never accept a transition where the homicidal madman is still in the Damascus Palace. At the UN, Assad would not let his representatives even utter the words “political transition” because they implied a turn away from his family’s fifty-year rule. His calculus may now change because one of his airfields has been decimated. The least that Trump can do is coerce Assad to the negotiating table and hammer out a deal. Diplomacy backed by force, to use the late Richard Holbrooke’s term, is the only path forward.
Regardless of what happens tomorrow and the day after, we who are still privileged to be alive must never forget what happened in Syria. Children have been subjected to the most wrenching of ends. Whole cities and towns have been depopulated, starved, and tortured. An entire generation has been lost and will never be regained. The moral imagination of the world, and with it our own dignity, was buried under the bodies of dead Syrians long ago. It happened on our watch, all of it. But the battle for Syria’s future remains far from won, and is perhaps just beginning.