Staring Down on Syria

On Saturday I took my family to have a closer look at Syria.

Posted Updated

, New York Times

On Saturday I took my family to have a closer look at Syria.

This was on the Golan Heights, from a roadside promontory overlooking the abandoned Syrian town of Quneitra. The border is very green at this time of year, a serene patchwork of orchards and grassland, and it was hard to impress on our kids that hell on earth was visible in the quiet distance.

But I wanted them to see it — to know that Syria is a place, not an abstraction; that the agonies of its people are near, not far; that we should not look away. Later that day, in a suburb of Damascus, Syrian forces apparently again gassed their own people.

It’s fortunate for Israel that it did not bargain the Heights away during the ill-fated peace processes of the 1990s: Had it done so, the Islamic State, Hezbollah or Iran might in time have trained their guns on Israeli towns below. The strategy of withdrawal-for-peace has not been vindicated in recent years, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Gaza Strip. It’s a point Donald Trump obviously missed when he insisted last month on U.S. withdrawal from Syria, likely encouraging the apparent chemical attack he now threatens to punish.

As it is, the chances of a wider and bloodier war over Syria have grown in recent days. Syrian tanks and artillery have reportedly entered the demilitarized buffer zone near the Israeli border, in brazen violation of the 1974 disengagement agreement, as they prepare to sweep rebel forces from the rest of the border area. Israel did very little to deny its attack Monday on an air base used by Iran in central Syria, and Jerusalem is threatening more aggressive steps to keep Tehran from further entrenching itself militarily in its client state. The Iranians have vowed retaliation for the attack, which they are sure to make good on, probably via their proxies in Hezbollah. And tensions between Israel and Russia are at their highest point since the Cold War, in part because Israel did not notify Russia in advance of Monday’s attack.

So where is the United States in all of this?

As Michael Doran pointed out in an astute New York Times op-ed on Tuesday, Trump seems to have violated his own ostensible rules for winning in recent days. First he promised to withdraw U.S. forces, which would eliminate what little military leverage we have with Syria (and Turkey), and then he telegraphed the kind of feckless missile strike he seems intent on carrying out sometime in the coming hours or days.

But the truth about current U.S. policy is worse. For starters, there is no policy: The president and his commanding general in the Middle East, Joseph Votel, have offered flatly contradictory statements about what the U.S. intends to do in Syria. We long ago pulled the plug on supporting relatively moderate Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar Assad. And the absence of policy itself runs counter to what is supposed to be Trump’s overarching goal of blunting Iran’s regional ambitions and forcing a renegotiation of the nuclear deal.

To adapt Churchill’s line about Russia, Trump’s approach to Syria is an impulse wrapped in indifference inside an incoherence. It makes Barack Obama’s failed Syria policy look savvy, since at least the former president’s reluctance to get involved was consonant with his overarching desire to improve relations with Tehran.

A limited missile strike that slightly degrades Assad’s military capabilities will change none of this, just as last year’s U.S. strike changed nothing. What could work? In a column I wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2013, I argued that the U.S. should target Assad and his senior lieutenants directly in a decapitation strike, just as the U.S. attempted in Iraq in 2003, and against Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Nothing that has happened in the intervening five years has changed my view about this. If we are serious about restoring an international norm against the use of chemical weapons, then the penalty for violating the norm must be severe. And if we are serious about confronting Iran, Syria remains the most important battlefield. An extended U.S. air campaign to destroy Tehran’s military assets in the country would send the message that we will not tolerate its attempt to colonize Syria and threaten its neighbors. It could also help avert the looming war on Israel’s north and persuade Russia that its adventure in Syria won’t pay long-term results, especially if Assad is gone.

None of this will solve Syria’s problems. But it can begin to solve the problems Syria has caused for us — as a violator of moral norms, a threat to our regional allies, and an opportunity for our most dedicated enemies. There’s a new national security adviser in the White House, and a final chance for American initiative in this devastated land.

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.