All wars are frightening for those stuck in the middle, but the five-and-a-half-year conflict in Syria has proven to be especially horrific. What kind of policy might President-elect Donald Trump adopt toward it? How different would his approach be from Barack Obama’s? Despite his early rhetoric about joining with the Russian and Syrian governments to fight the self-declared Islamic State, or ISIS, Trump is likely to encounter a far more complicated terrain than he seems to understand, which will require a much tougher approach toward Moscow than he so far envisions.
What makes the Syrian war so dangerous is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s determination to fight not simply by attacking opposing combatants, as the laws of war allow, but by targeting and indiscriminately firing upon civilians and civilian infrastructure in opposition-held areas, blatantly flouting those laws. Hospitals, markets, schools, and apartment buildings—the institutions of modern urban life—have all been targeted with unrelenting cruelty. For the past year, Assad’s attacks have been supplemented and intensified by the Russian air force under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s command without a discernible change in targeting strategy.
President Obama has made sporadic and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to stop this slaughter of civilians; his main preoccupation has been fighting ISIS. Trump seems inclined toward a similar focus, and has suggested a willingness to team up in fighting ISIS with Assad and Putin despite their attacks on civilians and their relative inattention to ISIS. In September, for example, Trump said:
My administration…will work with any country that is willing to partner with us to defeat ISIS, and halt radical Islamic terrorism. And that includes Russia. If they want to join us by knocking out ISIS, that is just fine as far as I’m concerned. It is a very imperfect world, and you can’t always choose your friends. But you can never fail to recognize your enemies.
Assad has called Trump a “natural ally” in the effort to “defeat the terrorists.”
US concern about ISIS is understandable given its threat of terrorism beyond Syria’s borders. But in addition to being a humanitarian abomination, Assad’s slaughter of civilians has also created millions of refugees, straining Syria’s immediate neighbors and destabilizing the European Union. Just as Obama found it difficult to ignore Assad’s slaughter, so will Trump. And if he wants to succeed where Obama failed, he will need to get tough with Putin. If he does not, then he may face a situation in which Assad’s atrocities continue to attract the extremist response that Trump says is his first priority to subdue.
The enormous toll among Syrian civilians has been primarily the result not of bombs gone awry but of a deliberate strategy begun by Assad’s military and now joined by Putin’s to depopulate opposition-held areas. The emblematic weapon used by the Syrian military has been the barrel bomb. Typically composed of oil drums or similar large containers filled with explosives and metal fragments, barrel bombs are dumped by Syrian aircraft over densely populated areas held by the armed…
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