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Friedman: Trump’s real-world Syria lesson


With each passing day our new president is discovering that every big problem he faces is like Obamacare — if there were a good, easy solution it would have been found already.

But Tuesday, tragically, President Donald Trump got this lesson in foreign policy via a truly vile poison-gas attack on Syrian civilians, many of them children, reportedly perpetrated by the pro-Russian, pro-Iranian, murderous regime of Bashar Assad.

Trump came to office with the naive view that he could make fighting the Islamic State the centerpiece of his Middle East policy — just drop more bombs and send more special forces than President Barack Obama did. He also seemed to think that fighting ISIS would be a bridge to building a partnership with Vladimir Putin of Russia.

It was naive because ISIS does not exist in a vacuum — nor is it the only bad actor in the region. ISIS was produced as a Sunni Muslim reaction to massive overreach by Iran in Iraq, where Iranian-backed Shiite militias and the Iraqi government forces of Nouri al-Maliki tried to crush all vestiges of Sunni power in that country and make it a vassal of Iran.

The onslaught against Iraqi Sunnis ran parallel with Assad’s Shiite-Alawite regime in Syria, turning what started out as a multisectarian democracy movement into a sectarian war. Assad figured that if he just slaughtered enough Sunnis he could turn their democracy efforts into a sectarian struggle against his Shiite-Alawite regime — and it worked.

With the aid of Russia, Iran and Iran’s Hezbollah militia, Assad was able to pummel the Syrian Sunnis into submission as well.

When Trump said he wanted to partner with Russia, it was music to the ears of Assad, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Like everyone else, they figured they could manipulate his ignorance to their advantage.

So, last week, someone named “Rex Tillerson” (who, I am told, is the U.S. secretary of state) declared that the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people” — as if they’ll be having an Iowa-like primary on that subject soon. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley made the point even more cravenly, telling reporters that the United States’ “priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”

Mind you, Trump is right to complain that this was left in his lap by the Obama team. But if you’re looking for a culprit for why America has refused to intervene in Syria, you have to look to your left and to your right.

“The American public simply does not want to spend the blood and treasure to produce what would probably be a less awful but still not good outcome in Syria,” explained Michael Mandelbaum, author of “Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era.” And that is a byproduct of the failed George W. Bush interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Alas, though, I now think doing nothing is a mistake.

The least bad solution is a partition of Syria and the creation of a primarily Sunni protected area protected by an international force, including, if necessary, some U.S. troops.

In the Cold War, we put 400,000 troops in Europe to keep Europe on a democracy track. Establishing a safe zone in Syria for the same purpose is worth a try. And then if Putin and Iran want to keep the butcher Assad in Damascus, they can have him.

The least bad alternatives, President Trump, can be forged only by a compromise in the middle, and, like your hotels, they’ll all soon have your name on them.



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