Sat | Jan 20, 2018

Editorial | Trump must end apathy on Syria

Published:Sunday | April 9, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Last week's attack by the United States on planes and related airbase infrastructure in Syria marks a reverse in Donald Trump's isolationist rhetoric and underlines the president's moral and foreign-policy schizophrenia.

What triggered Mr Trump's salvo of 59 tomahawk missiles was the unleashing, last Tuesday, of nerve gas by Syrian forces loyal to embattled president Bashar al-Assad that killed 86 men, women and children in Khan Sheikhoun, leaving many others choking and foaming at the mouth.

This was not the first time that Assad had deployed chemical weapons since his country became embroiled in a bloody civil war six years ago. He did so in 2013, mocking Barack Obama's red line that was supposed to drive fear into Damascus. It didn't.

But Mr Trump is in a bit of a quandary. For even though Assad has engaged in malicious bombardment, causing mass civilian carnage and, possibly, committing war crimes, Mr Trump has made assertions that are contrary to established American foreign policy. His revisionist ideology, in fact, may have emboldened the resurgent Assad regime to believe that there would be no consequences to an escalation of its intent to kill off dwindling rebel resistance and exact revenge.

The problem with the Trump about-face is that the president, in the years before his January 20 inauguration and even since, has insisted that the US has no business meddling in the affairs of other countries, dialling back America's traditional role as representative of a global conscience, a hedge against human-rights excesses, and promoter of democracy.


Narrow goal


This targeted strike appears to have a very narrow goal: a warning to Assad that the US will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against his own people. But what's next?

While the White House may have stopped another chemical catastrophe, we do not discern a cohesive and clear strategy on Syria. In fact, only yesterday, there were reports that Assad had resumed bombing Khan Sheikhoun. So Thursday's strikes on that airbase might have been more symbolic and cosmetic than they were effective.

There have been thousands of casualties in Assad's desperate and mercurial cling to power. Thousands more have suffered starvation, deprivation and injury. Millions have been displaced and a global refugee crisis has unfolded.

We find it strange that Mr Trump has grown a conscience at this late stage, but he cannot now retreat. He must take a more activist stance on the Syria conflict and not allow Russia and Iran to dictate the terms of its denouement. Vladimir Putin has made it clear that it is Russia's intention to bolster the Assad regime. That would be untenable.

This newspaper is hopeful that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others in the president's inner circle will impress on him that the United States cannot stand by the sidelines. It must play a key role, along with international partners, to restore stability - political and otherwise - to Syria. This will involve a post-Assad realignment.

That does not mean a wholesale bye to the rebels, many of whom have divided loyalties, are morally capricious, and who will be eager to lead a vengeful campaign of recrimination and reprisal.