PRESIDENT TRUMP’S appalling capitulation in Helsinki last week suggests an American president acting at the Russian president’s direction. But whatever its cause, nothing better exposes Trump’s geopolitical dereliction than his moral and strategic abdication in Syria.
The brutality of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has left a half-million Syrians dead, six million internally displaced, and five million more as refugees. In response, Trump has denied Syrians asylum, canceled $200 million of humanitarian aid to areas decimated in the war against ISIS, and let Assad and his Russian allies play him for the pawn he is.
In Syria, as elsewhere, Trump is President Vladimir Putin’s craven caddy. In 2017, the United States and Russia negotiated a ceasefire agreement in southwest Syria between regime and rebel forces. Last month Syria and Russia violated the agreement in a massive assault that is ravaging the region, displacing another 320,000 famished Syrians fleeing Russian bombs. When Russia ignored feeble American protests, Trump did nothing. The slaughter escalates.
Meanwhile Iran, Assad’s other key supporter, is expanding its military position. Having rejected an agreement that constrained Iran’s nuclear program, Trump does nothing to counter the Iranian regional aggression that was his pretext.
Salvaging Assad undergirds Iran’s survival strategy. Its chief regional rival, Saudi Arabia, spends five times more on its military. To compensate, Iran supports friendly militias in neighboring countries – including Hezbollah, its chief surrogate in Syria, trained by Iranian advisers deployed throughout.
One goal is to create a threat to Israel – enforced with missiles – that operates to protect Iran and, potentially, its revived nuclear program from attack. Thus Iran cooperates with Russia in order to acquire sophisticated weaponry and fortify a permanent force in Syria. Russia could not expel the Iranians even if it wanted to.
Inevitably, this creates the possibility of a dangerous regional conflict between Israel and Iran. Already, Israel has launched strategic attacks against Iranian forces in Syria.
Faced with all this, Trump has abdicated any meaningful role in Syria beyond finishing Barack Obama’s fight to expel ISIS. Against the counsel of his military advisers he has publicly proposed pulling troops out of Syria altogether. The result is a potentially incendiary contest between contending forces – including our allies in the fight against ISIS, the Kurds – which America can do nothing to constrain.
Indeed, Trump is ready to abandon the Kurds to the Iranians, the Russians, and their blood enemies, the Turks. Such shameless disloyalty would further erode America’s credibility and moral standing. Moreover, he seems prepared to embrace a Russian policy for Syria that extends Assad’s power and serves Putin’s fondest desires.
Here’s Putin’s to-do list for America’s pathologically pliable president: Continue to countenance Assad’s and Russia’s treacherous southwestern campaign. Withdraw American troops. Abandon the Kurds and the territory taken from ISIS, licensing Assad, the Iranians, and the Turks to move in. Accept Iran’s menacing build-up in Syria.
Putin’s fig leaf for Trump is an illusory promise to curb Iranian power in Syria and the chance to foolishly declare “mission accomplished” — leaving the field to Russia. Only a president who pronounced the North Korean nuclear threat eliminated — after he was transparently duped — would ignore that the real mission accomplished was Putin’s.
To be sure, our mistakes in Syria preceded Trump, and our leverage there is finite. Moreover, in southwest Syria the most capable opponents of the Assad regime are fanatical jihadists, backed by our Turkish and Saudi “allies,” without regard to whether their proxies are as inhumane as ISIS. But a minimally adequate president would consider that Assad lacks the manpower to retake the entire country, and that there are differing interests among Russia, Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah — including that neither Russia nor Assad wants a war between Israel and Iran, which would further decimate Syria.
That is why Russia has countenanced Israeli airstrikes against Iran and Hezbollah. These fissures provide some opportunity for creative American diplomacy aimed at protecting the Kurds, consolidating territory taken from ISIS, and providing relief for those who live there.
What would this require? Maintaining a residual American force. Judiciously using — or threatening to use — US airpower. Unfreezing our humanitarian aid. Fortifying areas taken from ISIS by rebuilding local governance and security and restoring oil, water, and agricultural resources. Declaring that autonomous areas in southwest Syria should remain so. And, finally, undertaking the arduous task of trying to broker a regional peace deal.
Trump’s obeisance to Putin excludes such actions. That’s a pity. The Syrian tragedy has many authors. But its grim denouement will surely bear Trump’s fingerprints.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.