WASHINGTON — As an exercise in both empathy and grand strategy, try to imagine being a pro-American Syrian.
Perhaps you saw two of your children killed when a tank attacked your home. Perhaps your street was leveled by barrel bombs. Perhaps your neighborhood was surrounded and slowly starved into submission. Perhaps you watched your daughter being lined up by soldiers who were choosing their rape victims for the day.
While visiting the Middle East over the last few years, I met Syrian refugees who told me all these stories. Many of them expressed their intention to go back home and fight the regime of Bashar Assad. I imagine that some of them did. In June 2013, the Obama administration announced it would give direct military support to American-aligned opposition forces. A United Nations official dealing with refugees showed me a chart indicating a spike in returns to Syria — people expecting to be armed for the fight against Assad.
It was a cruel illusion. American efforts to arm the rebels were generally a joke. But support from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States for jihadist forces in Syria was deadly serious. As was Iran's support for its proxies, which kept Assad's regime from collapse.
American policy in Syria since the outbreak of civil war in 2011 has been a story of confusion, hesitation and betrayal. President Obama's special adviser for transition in Syria, Frederic Hof, recently provided an important part of the historical record. In a blog post on the Atlantic Council's website, he described Obama-era policy on Syria as a series of commitments broken and red lines ignored. "[Obama] would deal with internal dissent," says Hof, "by taking officials through multistep, worst-case, hypothetical scenarios of what might happen in the wake of any American attempt, no matter how modest, to complicate regime mass murder." Eventually it became clear to Hof that the real reason for this reluctance was an overriding desire to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, even if this meant sacrificing "Syrian children and their parents."
The Syrian conflict, in Obama's description, was "someone else's civil war." This is one area of disturbing foreign policy continuity between Obama and Donald Trump. In July 2017, the Trump administration ended the covert CIA operation to arm anti-Assad rebels. "This is a momentous decision," observed one official on background. "Putin won in Syria." Now the president has frozen more than $200 million intended for Syrian reconstruction and announced — apparently against the advice of his military — "We'll be coming out of Syria very soon." This would involve the withdrawal of about 2,000 American troops. "Let the other people take care of it now," says Trump.
Just to be clear, "the other people" are Russians, Iranians, Hezbollah terrorists and members of the Assad regime. The victory of Assad might eventually bring what John F. Kennedy called "the peace of the grave [and] the security of the slave." But the immediate result of an American withdrawal would be a major escalation of the conflict in eastern Syria. It would also remove protection from our few remaining allies on the ground — rewarding their faith with one more parting slap.
Years of poor decisions — and no decisions — have left a wicked problem in Syria. But American forces are making a difference. And their withdrawal at this point would be an act of strategic imbecility. It would leave Russia as the undisputed power broker at the heart of the Middle East. It would cede oil fields under the control of American-allied forces. And it would reward Iran's search for regional hegemony. Does Trump even realize the incoherence of objecting to the softness of the Iran nuclear agreement while proposing to surrender Syria to Iran?
And then there is the radiating humanitarian nightmare. There are perhaps 3 million Syrian refugee children in camps and communities — some traumatized by violence, some bullied and harassed as outsiders, some forced into labor, some subject to radicalization, some 40 percent out of school. Our indifference is storing up generations of resentment and rage.
The final victory of Iran, Russia and Assad would send a number of clear messages: That mass murder works. That the use of chemical weapons works. That the forced starvation of civilians works. That the rules of war and condemnations by America can be ignored with impunity.
And the slow-motion betrayal of Syria has sent a message to every refugee I met and to every potential friend of our country: It can be dangerous to trust in America.