By Brandon Brooks
After seven years, over 400,000 deaths, and 5.5 million refugees, one might ask what, if anything, is worth salvaging in Syria? Embattled President Bashar Al-Assad still clings to power, the opposition has fractured along sectarian lines, and the prospects of a return to any semblance of democratic governance remain as elusive as ever.
To borrow a line from former U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power: Syria is truly a problem from hell.
So why should the United States concern itself with such a conflict?
In truth, it does not really have a choice in the matter. The ramifications of Syria’s descent into chaos extend well beyond its borders. As long as the underlying issues that led Syria to civil war – public demands for accountable governance, Kurdish nationalism, and the Sunni-Shia rivalry – remain unaddressed, extremist groups will always possess a means by which to exploit a disaffected and impressionable populace for its own ends.
And then there is Assad.
Since the start of the civil war, the Syrian government has made obvious its intent to pursue its enemies at all costs, irrespective of civilian casualties and international outcry. Assad’s most recent chemical weapons attack not only reflects the extraordinary lengths to which he will go to preserve power, but also poses a direct challenge to U.S. credibility and the international rule of law that it and its allies have sworn to enforce.
Failing to uphold these principles sets a dangerous precedent of which others around the world will quickly take notice.
Surely, none of this is lost on policymakers in Washington, yet for years the United States has suffered from a case of analysis paralysis. In its bid to develop a strategy that would deter future chemical weapons attacks, minimize U.S. involvement, and avoid a potential confrontation with Moscow, the Obama administration settled on a course that accomplished none of the above.
The end result: an awkward compromise in which the U.S. and its allies coordinated with Russia, Turkey and a coalition of Syrian rebel groups to combat the Islamic State all while the latter groups fought amongst each other.
In the meantime, Assad continued to exploit Western equivocation to consolidate power. Less than a year after agreeing to destroy its chemical weapons, the Syrian government began to exploit loopholes in this arrangement to retain its chemical arsenal and has since targeted heavily populated rebel-held areas with chlorine gas, in violation of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, of which it is a signatory.
A better way forward would deter future chemical weapons attacks and hold the Assad regime responsible for the atrocities it has committed against its own citizens. So far, the Trump administration has signaled a willingness to take a stronger stance against Assad, going so far as to approve military strikes against his regime on two separate occasions.
Yet Trump’s commitment, both to enforcing this standard and working towards a negotiated settlement to end the war, remains unclear, as evidenced by the administration’s prior announcement that it intends to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.
If anything, the administration appears to conceive of the war as a petty nuisance. All things being equal, Trump would prefer to end U.S. involvement in the conflict outright but feels pressured to respond to the latest chemical attack perpetrated by the Assad regime.
The United States now stands at a critical crossroads. For decades, its leaders have proclaimed the country would “never again” stand by as rogue states commit mass atrocities against its own people. Time and time again, it has fallen short of fulfilling this pledge. For the sake of the countless men, women, and children trapped in areas besieged by Assad’s forces, let’s hope this time will be different.