(3) Diplomatic and Humanitarian Engagement
Given the unattractive military options, Ashford recommended that the United States aggressively pursue “humanitarian and diplomatic steps” such as supporting the Syrian refugees dispersed among Syria’s neighbors and leading efforts to strike a peace deal in Syria, “an endeavor that has largely been abandoned under the Trump administration.”
The crisis over the attack in Douma should prompt the Trump administration to ask whether the United States is “drawing red lines around chemical weapons to save face, to save norms, or are we trying to save civilians?” Schneider said. “It is clear the U.S. and her allies will not dislodge Bashar al-Assad from office, but they will have to live with the consequences of his survival. Any new policy designed in Washington should focus on the fates of those Syrians left out of the above equation: those bombed, starved, displaced from their homes and unlikely to return. Syrians stuck in the messy, marginal communities, marbled with Islamists of all stripes, that Bashar al-Assad is dedicated to beating and gassing into submission—or pushing across the border—to cement his reign.”
(4) Military Withdrawal
James Dobbins, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Obama administration, told me that in the near term a “punitive” U.S. strike “may be necessary to sustain U.S. credibility” regarding the chemical-weapons taboo. But afterwards, he proposed, the United States should offer to remove its troops from Syria and “normalize relations” with the Assad government once the U.S-allied Kurds are granted autonomy within their enclave of Syria and all foreign militias, particularly those associated with Iran, are withdrawn from the country. He predicted, however, that the Trump administration would not take this approach, instead pairing strikes against Assad with “continued ineffectual calls for Assad to go.” That’s “the path of least resistance” in terms of U.S. domestic politics, he explained.
“Assad has won the civil war,” Dobbins recently wrote. “The Syrian state has been closely aligned with Russia and Iran for decades. … The best that can be hoped for at this late stage is that post-war Syria is no worse than pre-war Syria.”
“I am very wary of recommending a course of action that I do not think the United States will pursue responsibly and see through,” said Itani, who for years called for U.S. and allied military action against Assad and Iranian-backed militias to end the Syrian war. “I would prefer we do nothing [militarily against Assad], to yet more humiliation for” the United States.
Melissa Dalton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, meanwhile, suggested a hybrid of several of these options: a mix of American measures such as punitive strikes against Syrian aircraft used in Douma, sanctions for nations that have supported Assad’s deployment of weapons of mass destruction, a push for a negotiated end to the Syrian war that holds Assad accountable for his WMD use and large-scale conventional violence, and a commitment to sustained counterterrorism and stabilization missions in Syria. Through these moves, she argued, the United States could not just address terrorism and WMD proliferation, but also counteract Iran and Russia.
What Dalton expects, however, is for the Trump administration to take narrower actions, which she worries will address neither “the underlying drivers of civil war” nor the “conditions that allow ISIS and like-minded groups to fester.”