Donald Trump’s Syria “policy” has been largely reactionary and too reliant upon military force, ignoring opportunities to negotiate an end to the war.
On April 13, US President Donald Trump authorized what he called a “perfectly executed strike” against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s weapons caches in Damascus. The strikes took place mere days after the Assad government used chemical weapons against the last remaining rebel-held town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta, a largely civilian-populated area not far from Syria’s capital. Despite the support Trump received for the strikes from the Syrian opposition and longtime allies France and the United Kingdom, Trump’s Syria “policy” has been largely reactionary and too reliant upon military force, and has, so far, ignored its opportunity to negotiate an end to the war.
Since the start of his presidency, Trump has ignored prospects for a political solution to the war, allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin to call the shots in Syrian peace negotiations. This worries the Syrian opposition, who feel that the United States is the only party that can push for the political transition the now stalled Geneva talks intended to broker. Unburdened by past inaction, Trump has the opportunity to do what President Barack Obama didn’t — go beyond military force and take the initiative to engage in a meaningful peace process that ends the war and ensures a peaceful post-war transition.
This is not the first time Trump has taken military action against Assad. In April 2017, he authorized air strikes against al-Sharyat air base in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria the same month. Despite Russian, Syrian and Iranian claims that these attacks were staged, they have offered no evidence that anyone but Assad is responsible. It’s evident those strikes did nothing to deter Assad from using chlorine and sarin gas again, and his government is alleged to have used chemical weapons on at least three other occasions.
Apart from military action, Trump has demonstrated no appetite to get involved in Syria, preferring to leave the diplomatic problem-solving to Moscow. Since 2017, the Russian-led Astana talks have been the main channel of communication between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition. This is a worrisome arrangement given Russia’s political and military support for Assad, leaving little doubt where their sympathies lie. While the primary focus of the talks has been to implement UN Resolution 2254, which calls for a ceasefire and political transition in Syria, the Astana talks have done no more to stop the violence in Syria than the Geneva peace process. Meanwhile, Russia continues to strike rebel-held cities and towns and obstruct UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, blocking 12 since the start of the civil war in 2011.
Despite this, in November 2017 both Putin and Trump reaffirmed that the ultimate political solution to the Syrian conflict must be reached through the Geneva process, pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 2254. This is a signal that it’s time to work with Putin to revive the Geneva talk as the only viable way to really bring about an end to the wholesale bloodshed in Syria. The Geneva process has its critics who think that despite rhetoric supporting a Geneva revival, there is no will in Washington or Moscow to deal with the ugly and daunting task of mediating a political transition — the issue that is the crux of the problem in Geneva.
The dilemma of political transition will be the toughest hurdle to overcome in Geneva. The Assad government is essentially being asked to willfully negotiate its own demise and, from its perspective, hand power over to an unorganized and mixed bag of secular, Islamist and jihadist groups that comprise the Syrian opposition. The latter, however, won’t accept any solution where their murderous leader whose history of using indiscriminate weapons and siege tactics, as well as withholding of humanitarian aid, is simply overlooked as he’s allowed to remain in power.
The opposition continues to push for implementing the Geneva Communiqué, wherein a transitional governing body would administer a free and fair election and preside over a Syrian-led political transition. Couple the intransigence of the Syrian government with the unwavering demands of the opposition, and you have a seemingly stalled peace process.
This, however, does not mean that there is no use to continuing the talks. There is still much progress to be made, both between the warring Syrian parties and the great powers, to negotiate a ceasefire and a lasting solution. If nothing else, it’s wise to reinvigorate the Geneva process so that a line of communication remains open, in the form of UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s shuttle diplomacy, should circumstances change and one party chooses to sue for peace — or if a great-power deal is struck that brings their respective allies to the same table. If the aftermath of the August 2013 chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta is any indicator, Russia can be amenable to American demands in Syria if presented with a deft diplomatic touch. This is the solution that the US president should seek for Syria.
US interest in Syria cannot begin and end every time Assad uses chemical weapons. Trump should double down on his diplomatic capital with Moscow to negotiate an end to this war and focus the United States’ military prowess on defeating the Islamic State in Syria. There is still time to seek a political solution for this war, and Syria deserves a real policy that aims to attain a lasting peace. If Trump wants to mean what he says, then he needs to capitalize on the mutual respect he shares with the Russian president to reach a conclusion in Syria that both parties can accept. For Trump, it’s the Geneva talks or bust.
*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.