The Moral High Ground on Syria Is Empty

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IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 08: A man holds a photo of a victim baby as he and other demonstrators gather to protest against Assad regime forces’ allegedly conducted poisonous gas attack to Duma town of Eastern Ghouta, in Saraqib town of Idlib, Syria on April 08, 2018. (Photo by Mahmut Bekkur/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

More than 400,000 dead since 2011. Men, women and children. Dead from chemical-weapons attacks, but also dead from barrel bombings, gunshots, torture, starvation. Dead from routine illnesses and injuries untreated because more than half the country’s public hospitals are damaged or shuttered. Dead while trying to reach safety.

And of the living, some 6 million — half the population — forced to flee their homes.

The country, once a flourishing crossroads for commerce, is now the site of proxy wars between the U.S. and multiple jihadi groups. Between the U.S. and Iran, Israel and Hezbollah, Turkey and the Kurds, and even the U.S. and Russia.

Why? Because Syria’s strongman ruler, Bashar al-Assad, was and remains quite willing to lay waste to his country to save his own regime. Extremist groups of many stripes are eager to exploit the conflict for their own purposes. And every power with the ability to intervene — Syria’s neighbors, Iran, Russia, Europe, and the U.S. under successive administrations — judges its interests in Syria to be both more important than stopping the killing, and less important than the effort it would take to impose and keep a peace.

That is the plain and unattractive truth. Nobody comes off looking good, except the Syrian civilians and their humanitarian helpers who still try to feed families, tend the sick, bury the dead, shelter the refugees, and record the atrocities for history, if not for justice.
So does it matter if Assad uses chemical weapons, again? Do the ghastly deaths of babies have any meaning?

Maybe. Maybe, at minimum, the norm against using chemical weapons can be upheld. Maybe “punishment” by the U.S. and its allies will deter others from using chemicals on other civilians, other children. That seems to be the thinking of the French, the Trump administration, and others calling for retaliatory strikes.

But maybe not. To all appearances, Assad has continued to use chemical weapons unhindered since the last time the United States launched a retaliatory strike one year ago. Human Rights Watch has documented at least five likely uses of chemical weapons by the Syrian government just since November 2017. And since the August 2013 attack that prompted the Obama administration to declare that its red line had been crossed, Human Rights Watch confirms 85 chemical-weapons attacks, the majority traceable to the Assad regime.
Assad — and his adversaries, and others, like the Russia-attributed attack on a former spy and his daughter in England last month — uses chemical weapons exactly because of the terror they produce, because of the awful pictures. They communicate to the living, to those who are not in rebellion: don’t even think about it.

Pinprick missile strikes won’t change that calculus. The presence or absence of U.S. troops on the other side of Syria doesn’t do much to change it either. Trump’s angry tweets aside, the debate over Syria policy that has been ripping up Washington in recent weeks is almost totally irrelevant to the lives of civilians under Assad’s rule.
Washington could do three things to help ease the suffering of Syrians and bring some energy to the stalled, broken search for an end to the fighting. All are deeply unsatisfying. But each, for the cost of a few cruise missiles, would alter thousands of lives for the better.

First, get back to saving the “easy” lives by supporting refugees and displaced people. The Trump administration has pulled the United States out of global coordination on where to send refugees and cut and threatened to cut off U.S. support for overwhelmed UN refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere. And his decision to slash U.S. refugee admissions by more than half — and admissions of Muslims even more drastically — is a godsend to every other government that wants to refuse to do its share.

Second, prevent mass killing from recurring in areas where it has been stopped. The debate over whether or not U.S. troops stay in eastern Syria is the wrong one. The question is how the areas from which ISIS and other jihadi groups have been driven can rebuild security and basic institutions that can resist the urge to be drawn back into violence. Local leaders want to do that, and humanitarian groups like Mercy Corps have detailed proposals for how international civilians can help. If the best the world can do is support Syrians in establishing territories where hospitals operate, terrorists don’t plot, civilians don’t flee, and babies breathe safely, this would be how. But no such plan is on the table in Washington, where the debate imagines that either the U.S. plays no role or that the U.S. military is in charge of reconstruction.

Third, many of the multiple conflicts now playing out in Syria will have to be settled at the negotiating table. Washington has chosen largely to withdraw from the fray — the post of special envoy for Syria is one of many empty diplomatic slots in the State Department — but there is much it could do. The biggest outside actors in Syria, who prop up Assad and even help him kill civilians, are Russia and Iran. Washington is wasting his leverage with its inattention, conflicting policies, and unfulfilled threats. But the Trump administration still has plenty of tools to deploy, and not just military ones, to pressure Moscow and Tehran to rein Assad in; reconvene more productive peace talks; or even do more to mediate between our Turkish NATO allies and the Kurdish forces we empowered, who are on the edge of all-out conflict in the parts of Syria where ISIS has been driven out.

Doing that would require discipline and long-term focus; willingness to think smartly about non-military tools, instead of reflexively toggling between bombs and nothing; and keeping our focus on living Syrian babies every day rather than on dead Syrian babies occasionally. President Trump is terrible at this. But he’s not alone.

The Moral High Ground on Syria Is Empty