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After US airstrikes, Trump’s Syria plan starts coming into view

A peddler pushed his cart past a damaged courthouse in Azaz, on Syria’s Turkish border.
ZEIN AL RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images
A peddler pushed his cart past a damaged courthouse in Azaz, on Syria’s Turkish border.

WASHINGTON — Threatening war-crimes charges could persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to yield power, and he could be guaranteed safety in exile. These long-shot proposals are at the center of the Trump administration’s new effort to resolve Syria’s six-year civil war.

Though still evolving, President Trump’s plans for Syria have come into clearer view since he ordered cruise missiles fired on a Syrian air base to punish Assad for a chemical weapons attack.

The strategy breaks down into three basic phases: defeating the Islamic State group, restoring stability in Syria region by region, and securing a political transition in which Assad ultimately steps down.

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The approach is little different than one that failed under the Obama administration, and arguably faces greater challenges.

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Assad has violently resisted all attempts to end his rule, fueling a conflict that has killed as many as a half-million people.

The opposition fighting Assad is far weaker after a series of battlefield defeats. And any US plan for Assad will need the cooperation of Russia, a key ally of Syria ally. Trump last week said US-Russian relations ‘‘may be at an all-time low.’’

Still, several US officials said Trump’s national security team is using this month’s instability in Syria to try to refocus conversations with Moscow.

Trump’s cruise missile response to Syria’s chemical weapons attack bolstered US arguments that Russia is backing a potential war criminal in Assad, and restored America’s ability to threaten military action if more atrocities occur. The officials said they hoped instead to rejuvenate cooperation with Russia on Syria, which could help begin repairing fractured ties between Washington and Moscow.

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Trump’s emerging plan includes some of these elements, according to several US officials who weren’t authorized to discuss internal policy considerations and demanded anonymity:

 Defeat of the Islamic State: Trump’s airstrikes marked the first US attack against Assad’s forces, but there’s no appetite for using America’s military to depose Assad. Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said Sunday that the United States wasn’t planning to send in more ground troops.

‘‘Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS,’’ Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week, using an acronym for the militant group.

The group has lost much of the territory it held in Iraq and Syria. The major exception is Raqqa, the group’s self-declared capital in Syria, which the United States and allied rebel groups are preparing to attack in coming weeks.

 Stabilization of the country: After ISIS is defeated or its threat neutralized, the administration will try to broker regional cease-fires between Assad’s government and rebels. Such truces have rarely held.

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The Trump administration has spoken about ‘‘interim zones of stability.’’ These would be different than the ‘‘safe zones’’ the Obama administration considered but never opted for because they would have required a US military presence to enforce, potentially putting American aircraft in conflict with Syria’s air force.

Under Trump’s plan, the Assad government would be party to the stability zones and US or Arab aircraft could ostensibly patrol them without clashing with Syrian warplanes.

With security restored, the administration hopes local leaders who were forced to flee can return and lead local governments. At the national level, the aim is to set up a transitional authority to govern Syria temporarily.

 Transfer of power: The emerging plan envisions a peaceful transition. Assad’s departure could occur in various ways.

One possibility foresees elections held under a new constitution, with Assad barred from running. A grimmer possibility involves Assad going the way of former dictators who were killed after being deposed.

A third option aims to use the threat of war crimes charges as leverage. While the administration believes Syria’s government is culpable, the key is connecting the war crimes to Assad himself.

Successfully prosecuting Assad would be difficult because he is supported by Iran as well as Russia. But the administration believes the threat of a war crimes investigation and an offer of safe exile somewhere outside Syria could be potentially persuasive.