Can Trump bully his way to bring Assad down?
This is an opinion piece by Professor Sandeep Gopalan, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Academic Innovation and Professor of Law, Deakin University. The author's view and opinion may not imply or reflect Deakin Law School's view.
Israel launched a rocket attack on Syria on Wednesday in apparent retaliation against Iranian strikes on Israeli positions in the occupied Golan Heights the day before. The latest attack is reportedly the largest in recent times and comes after Iran was accused of hitting IDF posts with at least 20 rockets. Israel also struck Syria with missiles within an hour of President Trump's termination of the Iran nuclear deal on May 8. The strike targeted an Iran-related site near Damascus and killed nine people. The exchange of rocket attacks is in clear violation of the UN Charter and raises the risk of war between Iran and Israel.
President Trump's publicised goal of exiting Syria has created a power vacuum. Aggression by Iran, Israel, Turkey and the Assad regime in violation of international law only worsens the horrific situation in Syria.
Trump must recant and do what is necessary to effect regime change in this 'hell on earth'. Syria was not always hell on earth. Quite the opposite - it is on the road to Damascus that a one-time tentmaker named Saul who cruelly persecuted Christians saw the light and went on to become Christianity's greatest missionary - the Apostle Paul.
Syria has a glorious history. It is home to one of the oldest civilisations on earth dating back to 3000 BC - in Ebla, near Idlib in the north. It traded with Mesopotamia and is thought to have the oldest written language. Following rule by the empires of Akkadia, Sumer, Assyria, Macedonia, and others it eventually fell under the Romans. Syria even provided several Roman emperors, including Marcus Julius Philippus, aka Philip the Arab. Following the collapse of Rome, Damascus was part of the Byzantine Empire, thereafter becoming the centre of the Muslim world. The Ottomans ruled it from 1516 to 1918 - perhaps its most stable period. Syria endured a troubled period under French rule at the end of World War I but attained independence in 1946.
Its early years as an independent nation were no different. Bedevilled by weak institutions, Syria faced several coups culminating in the 30-year rule by Hafez Al Assad, the father of the current dictator Bashar Al Assad. Belying his early promise, Bashar's rule was marked by torture and repression - triggering uprisings during the Arab Spring, and the civil war that started in 2012.
Over 400,000 people are estimated to have died in the conflict over the last six years. One in two people - out of a population of about 17 million - are estimated to have become refugees due to the violence.
Consider that for a moment: a group of people larger than the entire city of Los Angeles turned into international refugees.
President Trump is correct that American involvement in Syria has been costly and largely fruitless. He tweeted in 2013:
We should stay the hell out of Syria, the "rebels" are just as bad as the current regime. WHAT WILL WE GET FOR OUR LIVES AND $ BILLIONS? ZERO
The recent chemical attacks and reciprocal rocket strikes illustrate the folly of exiting Syria without a viable alternative. There is little doubt that Assad was emboldened by America's reluctance to do the hard yards. Turkey, Iran, and Israel have also taken advantage of American absence to advance their own interests.
Turkey has launched indiscriminate attacks on the Kurds - who have been valuable allies of the US - in the fight against Daesh and killed innocent civilians. Its actions are in clear violation of the UN Charter's prohibition of the use of force in article 2(4) and breach Syria's territorial sovereignty. Russia is alleged to have committed war crimes in Syria - indiscriminately striking at civilian targets and causing deaths. Russia and Turkey have dramatically escalated their involvement in Syria - holding joint talks with Iran, promising to build hospitals, take more aggressive action against the Kurds.
These efforts will only gain strength with US retreat. In any case, the US only has about 2000 troops in Syria and its current funding commitments are just in the order of about $200 million. This skeletal presence will at least prevent the Russia-Turkey-Iran axis from having free rein.
But Trump must do a lot more. At its zenith, US power was more than just troops on the ground. It leveraged diplomacy and shepherded coordinated actions by other states resulting in funding for humanitarian aid, rebuilding institutions, and peacekeeping missions. It is such actions that prevented other Syria-like catastrophes in the past.
The president is right that other nations who are closer and have 'skin in the game' must contribute more to resolving the crisis in Syria. But that will not eventuate without American leadership.
Just as Paul saw the light and turned from persecutor to missionary on the road to Damascus, President Trump must turn from his contempt of the UN and diplomacy to corralling the Saudis, Jordanians, UAE, and other countries into collectively bringing down Assad. If he succeeds in doing that, Syria will once more be remembered for Damask silk and trade instead of assassinations, chemical weapons, and the world's worst humanitarian disaster. Arab leaders have exhibited a new willingness to participate in finding a solution including by contributing personnel. American leadership can be the glue if Trump leverages his bully pulpit to do good.