Although many people may think that they understand the seemingly perpetual conflict in the Middle East, it is far more complicated than it may seem at first glance. However, to any observer, it is clear that Syria has emerged as the focal point of the region’s turbulence. Syria has become a nation torn apart by a war, defined by shifting alliances with many combatants. Such a complex war requires America to develop a nuanced and sensible set of policies to promote peace in the Middle East, and to protect American interests. Sadly, the Trump administration does not fully understand this, and is taking a simple-minded approach to the conflict. As a result, Syria’s brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad appears to be growing stronger each day.
Assad is the second son of his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad. Once Bashar al-Assad consolidated power as the “president” of Syria, he continued his father’s authoritarian rule. Under the rule of Hafez al-Assad in the 90’s, Syria was by no means democratic. However, the nation was significantly more stable than it is today, kept in check by an iron fist. This was largely due to Hafez’s experienced rule. His son’s arrogance and inexperience have led to a destruction of the precarious balance that existed in the 1990s.
The issue of Assad’s rule came to the forefront in US foreign policy in 2001 when President Bush labelled Syria, by then under Bashar al-Assad’s rule, as a country in the “axis of evil” following the attacks of September 11. The Obama administration, likewise, took a firm stance on issues with Syria, and sought to counter Assad through drone strikes and counterintelligence initiatives while supporting pro-democracy militants in the civil war. These policies have proved relatively ineffectual, and Assad grew more authoritarian and blunt in his use of force to silence opposition. All of these factors have led to the increasingly complex relations we have with the country.
This relationship entered a new chapter in 2014 when Assad used chemical weapons on the town of Tell Mannas, and again in March 2015 on Sarmin. More recently, he appears to have used sarin gas in April 2017 on the innocent civilian population of Khan Shaykhun. This last move drew wide media attention because of its excessive, unprovoked maliciousness. All of these attacks were blatant breaches of the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which specifically outlaws the production or usage of dangerous chemical weapons. Due to this disregard for a widely respected international law, Assad has been accused of a number of crimes, most notable of which has been committing crimes against humanity.
In response to the April 2017 attacks by Assad, Donald Trump ordered the firing of fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base. The usage of missiles on Syrian forces is by no means a new phenomenon, as the United States has been planning and executing air strikes there for years. Despite this, it is still concerning that this even occurred, because Trump appears to have decided to attack simply based on television segments depicting the women and children that were killed by Assad. In other words, he seems to have used force without intelligence briefings, and rather on the spur of the moment. This is clear evidence of the current administration’s lack of serious consideration about what to do about Syria.
Instead of taking actions such as negotiating superfluous arms deals with the Saudis, Trump should focus his efforts in the Middle East on peace and restoration. In the case of Syria, he must take serious actions designed to remove Assad from power. He and his administration could do this by enforcing stronger sanctions on the Russian government, establishing a dialogue with key political operatives or entities in and around Syria, and building a stronger relationship with the United Nations.
It is clear that developing such a foreign policy would be a tricky and difficult endeavor. However, it is also obvious that by being more forceful with Russia and Putin, we could begin to impact Assad’s grip on the country of Syria. In contrast to this, Trump recently ended the United State’s covert aid in backing Syrian rebels that could potentially take down Assad. This was a policy constructed during the Obama administration and was not terribly favored by Obama, but rather enthusiastically promoted by then Secretary of State John Kerry as a balance between direct military action and avoiding as much intervention as possible.
In other words, while Obama took a rather removed approach to Syria, he at least had a concrete policy on the country. This was a policy that avoided potentially disastrous conflicts as seen in previous wars in the Middle East where the United States was involved. However, it also could be viewed as less than successful as it did not actually remove Assad from power.
What is then very concerning is that President Trump’s recent actions fall far short of even Obama’s ineffective Syria policy, as he has shown a complete lack of understanding of the complexity of the current situation in Syria, as well as the US’s past relationship with Assad. This has been reflected in his lack of focus and sense of community when among other influential world leaders (such as when he was at the G20 summit, where he had little contact with others).This can also be seen in his haphazard and inconsistent manner of engaging in Middle East policy in general, and Syria more specifically.
The problem here may have darker, deeper roots. It is entirely possible that Trump is more inclined to continue his inaction in regards to removing Assad from power due to his administration’s probable ties with the Kremlin. These connections are not an asset, but a limitation. If such ties exist, the president will be more inclined to make policy changes that benefit or aid Russia in its continued control over parts of the Middle East and Syria. The ultimate result of this would be the continuation of Assad as the dictator of Syria, a negative result for the people of Syria and for the entire international diplomatic community.
In short, Trump’s Syria policy is a trainwreck, putting a country and an entire region at risk. We cannot simply ignore the issue and think that a few “retaliatory” missiles will solve anything. People’s lives are genuinely at risk under Assad, be it due to chemical attacks or other acts of violence; we must cement a legitimate policy to deal with this pressing global issue.