Trump Leads From Behind in Syria

John Kerry trusted Russia. The president should ask him how that worked out.


Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Sochi, Russia, Nov. 20.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Sochi, Russia, Nov. 20. PHOTO: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/ASSOCIATED PRESS

President Trump has made reversing his predecessor’s legacy a guiding principle, except in one area: Syria. Much like President Obama, Mr. Trump’s policy has been exclusively anti-Islamic State, giving Iran and Russia a free hand to dictate outcomes in the country. This won’t end well.

Mr. Trump apparently sees cooperation with the Russians as the best solution. On July 7, in Germany, Mr. Trump and Vladimir Putin announced a cease-fire in southwest Syria. On Nov. 11, in Vietnam, they issued a joint statement confirming “the importance of de-escalation areas as an interim step to reduce violence in Syria, enforce cease-fire agreements, facilitate unhindered humanitarian access, and set the conditions for the ultimate political solution to the conflict.” That ultimate political solution, they declared, should follow the guidelines set by United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254.

This sounds great at first: The resolution, passed in December 2015, sets timelines for cease-fires, a new constitution and a transitional government. Yet Bashar Assad, employing sieges and starvation, has prevented the delivery of humanitarian assistance to his own people. This—along with his barrel bombs and political obstructionism—has prevented any progress in achieving the resolution’s goals. The Russians and Iranians have only enabled him. 

In November 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry reached an agreement on Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The agreed-to principles were incorporated in Resolution 2254 the following month. Later, Mr. Kerry would negotiate a joint operational center with the Russians to coordinate attacks in Syria—but the Russian onslaught against Aleppo in 2016 precluded its implementation. The Russians fulfilled none of their obligations, leading a frustrated Mr. Kerry to declare that Moscow and its allies have to decide whether “they are serious about implementing a United Nations Security Council resolution.”

Russia’s actions since have only proved it is not serious about Resolution 2254. The Trump administration might think it will be different this time, because the de-escalation zone in southwest Syria has been working. The administration clearly hopes to broaden the de-escalation zone and pursue a diplomatic solution. As Defense Secretary Jim Mattis explained in November, the U.S. can demilitarize the country area by area, until a diplomatic solution offers a way forward. While it would be good if this approach could work, the indicators aren’t positive.

Take the de-escalation zones: The one in southwestern Syria has worked, but only because it freed up the Assad regime and its Iranian allies to attack the other so-called de-escalation zones relentlessly. In one such area, Syrian regime cluster bombs have been hitting Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus. U.N. diplomat Jan Egeland has spoken of a “massive loss of civilian life” and declared that “there is only escalation in this de-escalation zone.” In a different zone, the town of Atarib was recently bombed, killing more than 50 civilians. Once the regime retakes these areas, it will surely turn its attention to southwestern Syria.

Also worrying: The day after the presidential joint statement last month, Mr. Lavrov declared that the departure of foreign forces called for in the recently concluded memorandum of principles between the U.S., Russia and Jordan did not apply to the “Iranian or pro-Iranian forces.”

Iran is also developing a front in Syria against Israel, with no sign of Russian opposition—despite talk of a buffer. During a recent visit to the Golan Heights, the local Israeli commander showed me a Quds Force-Hezbollah command post on a hill less than 4 miles away. Here is a conflict waiting to erupt.

There is little chance of the Russians implementing a peace agreement in good faith so long as they see no cost for noncompliance. The Trump administration could alter Mr. Putin’s calculus—and make the diplomatic process more credible—by conveying quietly that if the Russians will not stop the Assad-Shia expansion into the de-escalation zones, the U.S. will. 

Boots on the ground wouldn’t be necessary. The U.S. already has air power in the region dwarfing what the Russians used to secure Assad and change the balance of power in Syria. Mr. Putin knows that. He wants Russia, not the U.S., to be seen as the arbiter of Syria’s future. If there are any doubts about this, consider his active diplomacy with Assad and the leaders of Iran and Turkey over the past few weeks.

John Kerry eventually realized that words alone would not get Mr. Putin to respond in Syria. Time will tell whether the Trump administration has learned that lesson.

Mr. Ross has held senior national security positions in several presidential administrations and is counselor at the Washington Institute.

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