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 opposition. A “dumb” bomb, it is incapable of being aimed at a precise target; it simply tumbles to earth and devastates the community or neighborhood where it lands. Syrians have described to me the horror of watching a helicopter overhead dump a barrel bomb, hearing its contents swish back and forth as it tumbles, without knowing until the last seconds whether it will land on them. Russia’s entrance into the war in September 2015 introduced bombs that are capable of better targeting, but in many cases they seem to have been used simply to attack civilians and civilian buildings more precisely. In September 2016, for example, Russia, according to US officials, targeted a UN-organized humanitarian convoy.

Bashar al-Assad and Donald Trump
Bashar al-Assad and Donald Trump; drawing by James Ferguson

The Assad government, aided on the ground by forces from Iran and Hezbollah, has also deployed the age-old practice of siege warfare. The laws of war permit preventing supplies from reaching opposing combatants but not deliberately starving out civilians, as the Syrian government has done. More than a million people living under siege in such places as eastern Aleppo, eastern Ghouta, and Madaya have limited if any access to food, medical supplies, and other necessities, creating another inducement to flee if they can. (Antigovernment groups have also imposed such sieges in a handful of government-held areas.)

In addition, the Syrian government has been ruthless to people it has taken into custody during the conflict, whether combatants from opposition-held territory or suspected opponents in areas under its control. Some 200,000 people have been detained or forcibly disappeared into Assad’s prisons, where thousands have died from execution, torture, or neglect since the conflict began.

Such brutality by the government is one reason the Syrian conflict has been so deadly and disruptive and why hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed and half of Syria’s population displaced, including 4.5 million refugees. Although ISIS and opposition forces have also committed gruesome executions, Syrian activists estimate that more than 90 percent of the civilian deaths are due to government forces and their allies.


On occasion, the Obama administration has tried to press for an end to Assad’s slaughter of civilians. With Russia’s help, the US forced Assad to give up his known chemical weapons when in August 2013 his forces used sarin in eastern Ghouta, an opposition-held area outside Damascus, to kill hundreds of people in a single night. But even that accomplishment was tempered by Obama’s equivocation about enforcing his famous red line and his failure since then to impose any consequences on Syria for its continued use of chlorine as a chemical weapon beyond a failed effort to convince Russia to endorse sanctions in the UN Security Council. Because chlorine has legitimate uses including as a disinfectant, its possession is not barred, but the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the use of the toxic properties of common chemicals such as chlorine to kill or injure.

As for Assad’s other killing of civilians, Obama has contemplated various military options. (My organization, Human Rights Watch, has taken no position for or against any US military option in Syria.) Along with US allies such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, Obama armed certain opposition forces that he identified as “moderate,” but his efforts were limited in part because those groups often joined forces in the field with the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. In July, al-Nusra said it had split from al-Qaeda and changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, but that has not changed US wariness of the group, with Obama announcing in November a new military effort against it. On November 11, Trump told The Wall Street Journal that he is likely to end US arming of opposition forces altogether, since “we have no idea who these people are,” although his statement probably will not apply to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which are focused primarily on combatting ISIS.

Obama considered retaliating against Assad’s attacks on civilians by declaring a no-fly or no-bomb zone in which any Syrian jet violating it would be destroyed. He also considered attacking the air bases from which the attackers flew. But he never took these steps, mostly out of fear of a slippery slope toward greater military involvement. One train of thought prevalent in the White House was that if the US military stopped the barrel-bomb attacks by the Syrian air force, it would face public pressure to stop parallel atrocities by Assad’s ground forces—a deepening military involvement that Obama was determined to avoid.

Moreover, room for such a strategy diminished significantly once the Russian air force entered the war in September 2015, since enforcement of a no-fly zone would risk a confrontation between US and Russian aircraft, which few would welcome. Obama seems to have persuaded Putin not to bomb the SDF, but no agreement has been reached with respect to Syrian civilians. It is questionable whether Trump will do any better—or even try.

There has also been talk, mainly from the Turkish government but also from some members of the US Congress and Vice President–elect Mike Pence, of creating “safe areas” inside Syria where Syrian civilians could congregate and, in the view of some proponents, refugees could be contained. Trump in the second debate on October 9 also mentioned building a “safe zone.” But no serious plan has been put forward to defend civilians in these areas from ground or air assault and thus prevent the kind of massacre that occurred in Srebrenica, the “safe” area where Bosnian Serb forces slaughtered some seven thousand men and boys in 1995. Camps for displaced persons in Syria, even those near the Turkish border, have repeatedly come under attack. Turkey has occupied a patch of territory in northern Syria where it is forcibly assembling would-be refugees, but no one pretends it is safe.

The only military forces that Obama has deployed have been against ISIS in both Syria and neighboring Iraq and occasionally against Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in Syria. US aircraft have repeatedly attacked ISIS, and US special forces—some three hundred were reportedly authorized to act as advisers in Syria as of October 31—have worked with local forces, primarily the SDF in Syria and both Kurdish and national forces in Iraq, to retake territory. The shocking brutality of ISIS and the global threat it poses make it an understandable US concern, but in the number of civilian lives taken, its conduct pales next to Assad’s.

Trump seems to agree with Obama’s anti-ISIS focus for Syria, though on the basis of dubious factual assertions. In the second presidential debate, he said: “Right now, Syria is fighting ISIS. We have people that want to fight both at the same time. But…we have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved.” He recognizes that “Aleppo is a disaster, humanitarian wise,” but when asked about the consequence of its falling, he said, “I think that it basically has fallen, okay?” With that comment he avoided the need to address the estimated 250,000 residents of eastern Aleppo facing deadly bombardment by Russian and Syrian forces. He has presented no plan to ease the suffering and protect the millions of Syrians across opposition-held parts of the country who live under constant threat of starvation, detention, displacement, or death.


In fact, Syrian and allied Russian forces in Aleppo and other parts of Syria are focused overwhelmingly on fighting opposition forces other than ISIS. Out of the estimated eight thousand fighters from all groups in eastern Aleppo, only about nine hundred are thought to be members of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. ISIS is not in eastern Aleppo at all. Despite that, in a one-month campaign from mid-September to mid-October, Syrian and Russian forces conducted 800 to 950 air strikes in eastern Aleppo, an area the size of Manhattan.

Moreover, Assad’s atrocities have strongly helped ISIS recruitment efforts. The emergence of ISIS in Syria should be understood in part as a response to years of abuse and impunity on the part of the Syrian government. Focusing on a military victory against ISIS without changing Syrian government conduct is unlikely to defeat ISIS or prevent the emergence of similar successors. So while Trump shares Obama’s preference to see the Syrian conflict as mainly a problem of defeating ISIS, he is likely to encounter the same public pressure to do something as well to help Syrian civilians under horrendous attack from Assad’s forces.

Obama’s way of addressing Assad’s mass killing of civilians has been mainly to attempt to negotiate an end to the conflict while in the interim paying comparatively little attention to how it is waged. Secretary of State John Kerry has spent endless hours negotiating with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in an effort to strike a deal that might reduce or suspend hostilities. They have secured several short-lived cease-fires but mostly have talked and talked without discernible results, producing no long-term reduction in the attacks on civilians and other war crimes that have made the conflict’s civilian toll so devastating.

Indeed, as pursued by the Obama administration, these negotiations have come at the price of pulled punches in the effort to curtail Assad’s slaughter of civilians. Particularly since September 2015, when Russian jets began bombing to bolster Assad’s increasingly tenuous hold on the country, Russia has possessed, at least in theory, enormous influence over Assad, whose survival arguably depends on continuing Russian support. Yet while Kerry was negotiating with Lavrov, the Obama administration was reluctant to exert public pressure on Moscow to curb Assad’s war crimes. With rare exceptions, the US government has treated the Kremlin as a sincere partner in peace negotiations rather than an accomplice (and sometimes active participant) in Assad’s mass murder of civilians.

The reluctance to publicly pressure Russia for its actions in Syria meant that a powerful strategy was not deployed. Assad at this stage is beyond shaming for his military’s war crimes, but Putin is not. The Kremlin, facing economic decline and growing discontent because of the drop in oil prices and Russia’s failure to diversify its economy, is eager to convince the European Union to lift sanctions imposed because of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and backing of rebels in eastern Ukraine. Although EU sanctions address only Russia’s conduct in Ukraine, the importance of public opinion means that the prospects of lifting them diminish the more the Kremlin is seen as underwriting Assad’s attacks on civilians. That is undoubtedly a major reason why Russia has invested so much in public relations defending its intervention in Syria. Propaganda spews from its broadcasting network RT, formerly Russia Today, its news agency Sputnik, and its sizable army of social media trolls.

Yet the US government for most of the last two years has been reluctant to use the leverage provided by Russia’s need to protect its reputation in order to emphasize the Kremlin’s support for and participation in atrocities in Syria. There have been exceptions, as when Kerry called for an investigation of Russia’s “war crimes” after negotiations broke down in September 2016 and Russian bombers joined intense attacks on heavily populated eastern Aleppo, and when the US, in late September, backed a UN investigation into the bombing of a UN humanitarian convoy. But soft-pedaling and euphemism have been more characteristic of Washington’s public response to Moscow.

Maarat al-Numaan, Idlib, Syria, April 2014; photograph by Nish Nalbandian from A Whole World Blind, a collection of his photographs from northern Syria. It has just been published by Daylight.

Nish Nalbandian

Maarat al-Numaan, Idlib, Syria, April 2014; photograph by Nish Nalbandian from A Whole World Blind, a collection of his photographs from northern Syria. It has just been published by Daylight.

Playing down Russia’s military involvement in Syria has arguably made the quest for peace more difficult. (The same could be said of Washington’s downplaying Iran’s role backing Assad in light of the Obama administration’s primary focus on negotiating the nuclear deal with Tehran.) There is broad consensus among most observers of the conflict that the aim of negotiations should, at most, be to replace senior government officials in Syria but not the state. No one wants to replicate President George W. Bush’s disastrous Iraq policy, in which the dismantling of the Iraqi state led to chaos, huge loss of life, and the rise of the predecessor to ISIS. But if peace negotiations are to achieve a durable outcome—one that really stops the proliferation of rebel groups and the radicalization of some of them—the negotiators will eventually have to consider replacing Assad and some of his senior henchmen with a government that does not have as much blood on its hands and is more acceptable to the opposition.

Russia seeks to keep a pro-Moscow government in Damascus, but even Putin seems to have no special affinity for Assad and reportedly would be willing to see him go as part of an orderly transition in which a friendly government would continue.

Still, a big stumbling block in the negotiations has been the pace of a transition—how long Assad will stay on before being replaced. Opposition forces are understandably loath for him to remain in power while he continues to attack their families and neighbors. Yet the lack of public pressure on Moscow to prevent or limit these attacks means that the killings proceed while the negotiations drag on. It also means that the likelihood of bridging the negotiating gap on the pace of change diminishes.

With these humanitarian and practical considerations in mind, the logical next step for the Obama and Trump administrations should be to intensify public and private pressure on Russia to curtail Assad’s killing and besieging of civilians and his mistreatment of prisoners. Public pressure on Putin should be seen as a necessary companion to peace negotiations rather than an obstacle, particularly because Russia had been so unresponsive to private entreaties. Public pressure would hardly be Trump’s first instinct, in view of the new businesslike relationship he has said he envisions with Putin. But if Putin pays no greater heed to Trump’s persuasion than Lavrov has to Kerry’s, Trump will quickly face a test of his leadership.

Trump may want to turn his back on Syrian government war crimes, but in view of the regional pressures created by the conflict and the public demands to address it, he will find these atrocities difficult to ignore. Otherwise, in his first major test, Trump would risk the appearance of being played by Putin rather than acting as the skilled negotiator and leader that he has described himself as being.

A central component of any successful Syria strategy will be ensuring that Russia would pay, at the very least, a severe price to its reputation if it continues to back and join Assad’s attacks on civilians. The rhetorical shift begun by Kerry in September was useful in this respect, but the rebukes that the Kremlin cares most about would come not from Washington alone but from a broad cross-section of Russia’s peers.

Russia’s veto in the UN Security Council, until recently backed by China, has stood in the way of condemnation of Russia’s complicity by the most powerful UN body, so other UN institutions should be tried. In October, for example, the UN Human Rights Council held a special session to condemn “the Syrian authorities and its allies,” especially in view of the bombing of eastern Aleppo—a useful step. The same month, the UN General Assembly narrowly denied Russia a seat on the Human Rights Council by electing two other Eastern European governments instead—a significant embarrassment for Putin. Immediately following these multilateral initiatives, Russia and Syria began a three-week lull in the bombing of Aleppo. The cause of this lull cannot be determined but its timing is suggestive. It ended only the day after Putin and Trump spoke by phone.

The logical next step to increase pressure on Moscow should be for the General Assembly to convene an emergency session on Syria, including on Russia’s actions there. The General Assembly, where there is no veto, has held emergency sessions only ten times in its sixty-eight-year history. The horrific war crimes being committed in Syria clearly warrant an eleventh.

Canada has begun the process of sounding out governments to see whether a decisive majority could be rallied in the General Assembly to demand an end to atrocities in Syria, but the Obama administration has been lukewarm about this initiative. It has questioned whether there are sufficient votes for a strong resolution; but that doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because actively deploying US diplomatic persuasion would be one of the best ways to secure the votes needed.

The Obama administration’s judgment may be affected by the US government’s dislike of using the General Assembly to circumvent a veto-stymied Security Council because it fears the same steps could be used to evade its own veto, most notably on issues affecting Israel. But ending the calamitous slaughter in Syria should be seen as more important than the business-as-usual protection of US power on the dysfunctional Security Council.

The Obama administration in its remaining two months, and the Trump administration after that, should also move beyond Kerry’s general call for a war crimes investigation. Syria has never joined the International Criminal Court, so the court for now can obtain jurisdiction only by referral from the UN Security Council—a step that Russia, backed by China, has vetoed. But the US could support efforts at the UN General Assembly to appoint a special prosecutor to collect evidence of crimes by all sides so that cases would be ready for prosecution once a tribunal became available. Some private groups are already making such efforts, but a UN-designated special prosecutor would raise the deterrent value considerably. Russia announced on November 16 that it would withdraw from the International Criminal Court—a largely symbolic gesture since it never ratified the treaty creating the court—but that would make no difference if the court, or some other tribunal, ultimately gained jurisdiction over crimes committed in Syria.

Outside of a Security Council referral, three such tribunals are conceivable: a special Syria tribunal set up by the General Assembly in an emergency session, national governments prosecuting in their own courts suspects who fall into their hands under the power of universal jurisdiction, or ultimately the ICC if a new Syrian government joins it and accepts its jurisdiction retroactively. It is unusual to appoint an international prosecutor before an international tribunal is available, but it was done recently (with Russia’s consent) for crimes in Kosovo and should be replicated for Syria. Although Trump may continue the Bush administration’s opposition to the International Criminal Court because of the risk that it would prosecute Americans, even Bush did not veto the Security Council’s referral of Sudan to the ICC for crimes in Darfur.

The US government should also increase targeted economic pressure on the Russian officials who are most directly involved in supporting and joining Syrian atrocities. For example, Rosoboronexport is the principal Russian arms dealer and it has been supplying the Syrian military. The US Congress has already barred purchases from Rosoboronexport but the Obama administration waived that prohibition so Afghanistan could continue to receive parts and maintenance for its Russian Mi-17 helicopters. The Trump administration should uphold the sanctions.

None of these measures can guarantee success. But all are designed to increase the cost of Russia’s complicity in war crimes in Syria. Given the difficulty inherent in the various military options under discussion, these reputational and economic steps are the best way to shift the cost-benefit analysis that has led Putin to join rather than curtail Assad’s atrocities, which are fueling the threat of ISIS and other extremist groups. A Trump administration, eager to show it can do better than Obama, would be wise to pursue these measures. Though Trump takes office with a presumption of working with Putin, a tougher position toward him on Syria is likely to be the only way Trump can make any progress.

—November 22, 2016