There is little that can stop the brutal assault under way in northwest Syria, where Russian, Iranian and Al Assad regime forces have launched a major military offensive as millions of civilians flee for their lives. But the record shows that if US President Donald Trump acts to try to halt the slaughter, it might have real impact on the ground. Even a presidential tweet could save lives. Time is of the essence.
There’s a lot going on right now in US foreign policy. The Trump administration is dealing with an escalating Iran crisis, North Korea missile firings, a shaky China trade negotiation and an attempt to oust the Venezuelan regime. It’s no coincidence that the regime chose this moment to retake the last rebel-held area of Syria using scorched-earth tactics.
The region of Idlib holds about three million civilians, including one million children, who were moved there from across the country because they would not submit to the Al Assad regime. And now there is deafening silence from the international community about their brutal slaughter.
James Jeffrey, the State Department’s special envoy for Syria, noted that the US government sees a “major escalation” by the regime and its allies in Idlib and is working diplomatic channels to de-escalate the fighting.
“We are raising this at every level with the Russians,” he said.
Al Assad is dependent on Russian air power, and Moscow has committed a lot of it to the assault. That means Moscow is violating the ceasefire and de-escalation agreement it signed with Turkey last year in Sochi, Russia. The Turkish government, which saw its outpost in Idlib shelled, seems unable or unwilling to stop the onslaught. But history shows that when Trump decides to intervene in Syria to protect civilians, Moscow listens.
In April 2017, when Trump first launched missiles at the Syrian regime, he was responding to a chemical weapons attack in Idlib that looked to be the beginning of the very offensive we are seeing now. Trump’s actions persuaded Al Assad and Russia to back down.
After a Syrian activist told Trump at a fundraiser that the assault on Idlib was beginning again, the president tweeted last September that Al Assad “must not recklessly attack Idlib,” and that Russia and Iran must not support a “potential human tragedy.” The tweet worked.
“It stopped. You saw that. And nobody’s going to give me credit, but that’s OK,” Trump said at the time. “Millions of people would have been killed. And that would have been a shame,” he said.
Now Moscow is testing Trump again. So far, the president is silent. That has a cascading effect inside the US national security system. Several people who work with US government agencies on the ground in Syria note that US officials in the bureaucracy are waiting on Trump to signal his intent before they move to engage in Idlib.
Senator Lindsey Graham (top Republican politician serving as senator from South Carolina) understands the importance of Trump’s verbal cues. He tweeted at the president this week, asking him to speak up and protect Idlib. Putin surely also understands that in the United States’ Syria policy, Trump’s words matter. Trump and Putin spoke for about an hour last week, but it is unknown what, if anything, they discussed about Syria.
According to activists public estimates of 150,000 newly displaced people in Idlib are just the beginning. Millions of people see the international community is not willing to do anything to keep them safe in their homes.
Several schools in Idlib (supported by US aid organisations) are now at grave risk. Thirty of those organisations wrote to Trump, asking him to give the signal so the US government can snap into action.
Syrians will remember that the world abandoned them in their time of most dire need. The fresh atrocities could fuel more extremism. The new refugee crisis may further destabilise Turkey, the Middle East and Europe.
It’s bizarre that the fate of millions could hinge on whether Trump decides to speak up to protect them. The people of Idlib will give him credit, if they survive.
Josh Rogin is an American columnist who specialises in foreign policy and national security issues.