The situation in Syria is catastrophic. The Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies are bombarding the rebel-held enclave of Idlib, continuing their wholesale slaughter of civilians. Turkey, drawn into the conflict by the chaos along its border, is essentially at war with Damascus and, by extension, Moscow. Thousands of Syrian refugees are once again heading toward Europe, potentially destabilizing the situation there.
And yet, after nine years of war, the United States appears determined to continue ignoring what’s happening in Syria — even though there are strong incentives, both moral and strategic, to act.
As our NATO ally Turkey and Russia edge closer to a violent confrontation in northwestern Syria, the situation on the ground is getting grotesquely worse. More people have fled their homes in Idlib over the past two months than all the Rohingya Muslims displaced in Myanmar over the past five years. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are starving or living under trees in the dead of winter. But Turkey’s requests for assistance from the United States and Europe have gone largely unanswered.
In Idlib, the assault on civilians by President Bashar al-Assad’s army, Russian warplanes and Iranian militias is pushing an already crowded population into an ever-shrinking space — and that space is hell.
“Now, 3 million Syrians are huddling there, suffering from cold and lacking water, sanitation and medical care,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), at an event this week. “This has been happening outside the public glare, not because it’s unknowable but because the public is uninterested.”
The Trump administration’s response has been to publicly condemn the war crimes while offering Turkey rhetorical support and not much else. Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Syria special envoy James Jeffrey crossed into Syria this week for a photo op with the Syria Civil Defense forces, known as the White Helmets.
The U.S. officials announced $108 million in new humanitarian assistance, which is good, though much of it will go through the United Nations into regime-held areas. To date, the administration has not provided any of the military assistance Turkey has requested, which ranges from Patriot missile batteries to intelligence and logistics support for the mission of protecting Turkish troops and Syrian civilians.
Jeffrey told reporters the United States would provide ammunition to Turkey, but a State Department spokesperson later clarified that “there is nothing particularly new here,” stressing that Turkey’s requests are merely under consideration. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a cease-fire agreement on Thursday. But that won’t last. The fundamental dynamics on the ground have not changed.
As they’ve done several times before, Russia and the Assad regime will quickly violate their agreements and resume attacking civilians in Idlib. The slaughter will continue, creating more refugees and driving more extremism. President Trump said he sees Syria only as “sand and death.” Trump may calculate that the American people just don’t care. Here’s why they should.
The strategic argument is clear-cut. What happens in Syria doesn’t stay in Syria. A new wave of refugees will destabilize European democracies. The United States has interests all over the region that will be threatened by the rising chaos. The Islamic State will seize the opportunity to revive itself. Eventually, when strong enough, its fighters will attack Americans wherever they can.
Some argue that, because Assad is determined to retake Idlib, we should just get out of the way. The problem is that his next target is Syria’s northeast, where several hundred U.S. servicemembers are based, which will make that our problem. If we remove those troops, we will lose all leverage to push for a political solution. The Islamic State and Iran will fill the vacuum.
After our troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan, many Americans just want the United States out of the Middle East. But Syria is not Iraq. With just a few hundred soldiers and some help to our allies, the lives of millions can be spared from Assad’s cruel rule. And if we allow this slaughter, there will be more slaughters to come. We have a moral imperative to try to stop that.
“The war in Syria is not just a disaster,” David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, said at the CSIS event. “The war in Syria will, dangerously, become a precedent for a new normal of brutal, divisive, contagious conflict.”
If Americans are not convinced by the moral or strategic arguments, consider this: There are at least six U.S. citizens being held as prisoners by the Assad regime right now. The Trump administration is dedicated to bringing American hostages home. If we leave Syria and don’t insist on playing a role in its future, our chances of negotiating their release go way down.
Despite nine years of failed policy, the United States still has the responsibility and the ability to use its power to defend basic human dignity, while protecting our own national security interests. Stopping the killing in Syria is both our moral obligation and the best way to keep our own country safe.
Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He previously worked for Bloomberg View, the Daily Beast, Foreign Policy, Congressional Quarterly, Federal Computer Week and Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper.