Ghouta. Aleppo. Homs. The list of cities steadily gets longer. The simplicity of their names belies the death, terror, and suffering endured by their residents. Chemical weapons attacks, aerial bombardments, malnutrition, sexual violence and other means of torture define Syria. Every few weeks another massive atrocity hits our news stream and then we turn back to other stories until more “flagrant war crimes” enter our feeds. The violence doesn’t stop when the commercial break comes or when Trump tweets. It is endless.
The siege of Eastern Ghouta has been underway for some time, with Assad regime and Russian backed forces amping-up their bombardment on Sunday. And so, as it has so many times for the better part of a decade, Syria is back in the headlines this week, with images of injured children and dead bodies crossing our screens. The UN has called it “hell on earth” and there is, in fact, no end in sight. An all too familiar, macabre scene is playing out – the baseline level of violence (undeniably horrifying) that we have grown accustomed to hearing in the background has been breached, the suffering ratcheted to levels impossible to ignore. Like many times before, the UN and many members of the international community call for action. The Assad regime continues to operate with impunity. And importantly, Russia denies involvement. This is where the human costs of the Trump administration’s weakness toward Russia become very real. The U.S. – and the rest of the world – know that the Kremlin could stop this if Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to. The United States, and the international community – including Syria’s neighbors – have a responsibility to do more, but convincing Putin that the United States will actually stand up to Russia is a prerequisite for a strategic change in Russian support for Assad. And right now, Putin is unconvinced. So the siege goes on, regime forces likely retake the city. And the cycle continues.
How did we Get Here
From the use of chemical weapons to mass executions, targeting of hospitals, scud attacks civilians and more, we have watched, under two different U.S. presidents, as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed several of the White House’s self-declared redlines since the conflict began. Experienced diplomats have toiled for years trying to achieve some kind of political solution only to come up empty handed as the atrocities pile up and the bar for what we will live with – those of us not directly impacted by the violence – keeps moving further down the field.
President Donald Trump came into office and sent a fleeting signal to Assad that actions have consequences – the U.S. strike on a Syrian airbase in April was in response to yet another Syrian chemical weapon attack. But any deterrent impact it had on Assad or his benefactor Vladimir Putin was short lived at best.
The common thread throughout these seven years of horror has been a Russian one. Since the outset, Putin has been choreographing a grisly dance – his support for the regime has meant that he has leverage to start or stop starvation tactics, bombings, and torture. He is pulling the strings and hasn’t hidden his support for Assad. While he announced the purported withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria in December (a claim many point to as false) he overtly welcomed Assad to Russia in November 2017 and has publicly emphasized his commitment to keep supporting Syria’s sovereignty. Even before the first Russian airstrikes in Syria in September 2015, the Kremlin’s support for Assad impacted the decisions of many world leaders on what to do about Syria. Direct or indirect engagement of any kind in Syria, has for years, meant direct or indirect engagement with Russia – sometimes with deadly consequences. We saw this just last week, when fighting between the U.S. and pro-Assad government forces resulted in the deaths of Russians.
Putin has used these dynamics to his advantage. As U.S. leadership wanes because of self-inflicted credibility wounds — arbitrarily backing out of international agreements, failing to stand up to hostile powers like Russia even after it attacked the core of U.S. democracy with its efforts to interfere in the 2016 elections, making hollow “fire and fury” threats on DPRK, and more — Putin has overtly tried to position himself as the solution to ending the conflict, even bringing the leaders of Iran and Turkey together in the Russian city of Sochi last November (he has another Summit planned in the coming weeks). The hubris here is undeniable – Putin is the force behind Assad’s killing machine and yet is publicly and privately establishing himself as a mediator. Russia is calling the shots, both literally and figuratively, and that will not mean an end to the violence.
Where do we Go
It has been a long and bloody road. On March 15, we will mark the seventh anniversary of the conflict. In those seven years, at least 400,000 people have died – that’s more dead than the population of New Orleans. 13.1 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance – that’s more than the entire state of Pennsylvania. The figures are staggering, yet we allow them to keep growing, day after day.
President Trump did, just months into office, take a more aggressive military posture on Syria with his strike on a Syrian airbase. And, the administration is going to maintain an “open-ended” military presence in Syria. But none of this has stemmed the violence in Syria, nor has it strategically altered the course of the war to align with U.S. interests. As long as Putin supports Assad, the killing, maiming, and all of the other horrors associated with this war will continue. The answer to ending the conflict lies with Putin; in convincing him that his support for Assad will wreak consequences so unpalatable that his cost-benefit analysis shifts.
This would be a Herculean task even if the Trump administration was amenable to taking it on. Putin is not easily swayed, particularly when it comes to the Russian balance of power abroad, and while there is no guarantee that he will pull back all support for Assad if the U.S. takes a tougher stance against him, it could be a start. After President Trump bombed the Syrian airbase in April 2017, a new ceasefire was announced (we can’t prove direct causation but Trump’s willingness to take direct action was likely a contributing factor). Absent the U.S. standing up to Russia, Putin has no reason not to continue his support for Assad — he can digest any costs (human or otherwise) associated with the conflict.
The task becomes more complex in light of the U.S. president’s seeming unwillingness to confront Putin over much of anything — the logic that he would confront Putin over Syria and not over Putin’s ongoing attack on the United States is not reassuring. But he needs to try. There are no easy answers to this tragedy — the national security toolkit is filled with options from more direct military involvement to diplomatic levers, and all have been debated over and over again the situation room and with our allies. It’s time for the Trump administration to start putting them to better use.
I bring a bias to this topic. My father was a young, Jewish boy living in Paris when the Holocaust broke out, and he and my family – along with millions of others – suffered while the United States debated whether to directly enter the war. After WWII, the world said “never again” — never again would we stand by and let this kind of violence unfold. And yet, here we are.
Each day that goes by, more Syrians die and Putin feels more emboldened. Bodies pile up and his assessment of what the world will tolerate – and what he can get away with – shifts further in his favor.