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Donald Trump puts a dangerous spin on Syrian policy

A frame-grab from video footage released on Nov. 17 by the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, shows rescuers trying to pull out a child trapped under rubble in Aleppo, Syria. White Helmets/European Pressphoto Agency

DONALD J. TRUMP’S posture toward Syria is the president-elect at his worst, putting a seductively simple spin on a dangerous and immoral approach.

In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump confirmed a position he repeatedly staked out during the campaign — that the United States should make common cause with the Syrian government and its Russian backers against the Islamic State.

“Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS,” he said.

Trump’s formulation may sound, to some, like a satisfying bit of realpolitik: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

But it ignores the fact that the enemy — the Islamic State, or ISIS — is already in retreat. The US-backed effort to take the terrorist group’s last major stronghold in Iraq — Mosul — could be wrapped up by the time Trump takes office. And ISIS’s hold on Raqqa, its de facto capital in Syria, is tenuous.

It also assumes that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin are focused on fighting terrorists, when their prime target appears to be the US-backed opposition to Assad’s regime.


That opposition, supported by the Obama administration, is hardly perfect. In the interest of survival, and because they are ideologically aligned, some of the rebels have allied themselves with an Al Qaeda affiliate.

But holding up the Syrian government as a bulwark against terror is a dangerous game. The country has been on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism since the list’s inception, in 1979.

Backing Assad also means crossing longtime allies, which could have ripple effects in the region. And it means supporting a dictatorship utterly at odds with American values.

Assad says that his government must continue “to clean” the city of Aleppo, even as wailing parents pull dead children from the rubble and orphaned kids suck on oxygen masks between gasps of grief.


Last week, Russia began a new offensive in Syria, just hours after Trump and Putin discussed working together to fight terror. One airstrike hit a hospital, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Senator John McCain issued a sharp rebuke, saying Putin “has rejoined Bashar Assad in his barbaric war against the Syrian people.” Secretary of State John Kerry has said, in the past, that Assad should be investigated for war crimes.

There are no easy answers in Syria, riven by one of the most confounding, horrific conflicts in the world. But it’s clear that Trump’s answer is the wrong one. The future of Syria should be decided around a conference table in Geneva, not in the streets of Aleppo. The United States has said that Assad has no role in postwar Syria. If Trump abandons that condition, he is forcing the West to bargain from a position of weakness.