The Trump administration has made clear that its top priority in the Middle East is to thwart Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions. So why is it so reluctant to lift a finger against Tehran’s most audacious gambit in Syria?
That gambit is the reconquest, by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies, of Idlib Province, the last major rebel holdout in western Syria and home to about three million people. A humanitarian catastrophe is expected to follow, entailing mass casualties and another tidal wave of refugees.
By now, the strategic consequences should also be obvious. Iran will have succeeded in consolidating a Shiite crescent stretching from Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Russia will have succeeded in reasserting itself as a Mideast military victor and diplomatic power broker. Hezbollah, already the dominant political player in Lebanon, will further extend its influence in Syria.
As for Assad, he will have shown that the community of civilized nations will, in fact, let you get away with murder. And with using prohibited chemical weapons. And with decimating your own people by means of barrel bombs, mass torture and food blockades.
The losers in this equation: Turkey, already groaning under the pressure of millions of Syrian refugees and a crumbling economy; Israel, whose repeated strikes against Iranian targets in Syria have dented but not denied Tehran’s ambitions; Europe, which could face yet another refugee crisis even as the effects of the last are felt in the resurgence of the far right; and the Syrian people, terrorized witnesses to the marriage of wickedness and indifference.
And then there’s the United States, where two administrations have now allowed the Syrian crisis to become depressing testimony to the worthlessness of our word, the fickleness of our friendship and hollowness of our values. Donald Trump, loudly billing himself as Barack Obama’s opposite in every respect, has effectively adopted his predecessor’s worst foreign policy mistake.
At least the Obama administration could privately justify a weak Syria policy as being consonant with their desire to strike a nuclear deal with Iran. Trump’s Syria policy lacks that dubious coherence: It seems to have no broader rationale other than the president’s knee-jerk isolationism, his deference to Vladimir Putin, his apparent belief that the only vital U.S. interest in Syria is the defeat of ISIS, and his occasional need to look tough by ordering minimally effective airstrikes.
Even John Bolton’s latest threat to hit Assad harder if he uses chemical weapons in Idlib doesn’t rise to the level of meaningful policy. Punishing the use of chemical weapons without exacting a devastating price on the user is just the sort of feckless gesture the national security adviser would gleefully have mocked when he was out of government.
What would be a serious policy? Trump warned — in a tweet! — that Assad “must not recklessly attack Idlib Province.” Such an attack should be the administration’s red line, regardless of whether the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons. If Assad crosses it, the U.S. can destroy everything that remains of the Syrian Air Force and crater the runways Iran uses to supply its own forces in Syria. If Assad continues to move, his presidential palaces should be next.
After that, Assad himself. By then he will have been fairly warned.
The larger goal is to establish that the U.S. has the ability and will to achieve core foreign policy objectives at a relatively reasonable price. Those objectives are to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe; exact an increasingly heavy toll on Assad and his allies for prosecuting their offensive; create leverage for future diplomacy; and demonstrate to regional allies that we can be an effective, engaged and reliable partner, provided they’re willing to do their share.
What the objective is not is to dictate Syria’s future or solve its problems, much less get into the weeds of sorting out Idlib’s bad rebels from the more moderate ones. Down that road lies Iraq II.
But American policymakers desperately need to learn how to find the middle road between overreaction and inaction; between a missionary zeal to solve other people’s agonies and the illusion that we can remain aloof from them. The Obama administration thought it could largely wash its hands of Syria. It ended up acting as a bystander to genocide, to borrow Samantha Power’s famous phrase.
The Trump administration might still think it can fire off a few cruise missiles and the odd tweet in the face of Assad’s depredations. If so, it will wind up as a midwife to the mullahs’ ambitions, however many sanctions the president might otherwise slap on Tehran.
The countdown for the siege of Idlib has begun. America’s enemies know the stakes. Do we?
Bret L. Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.