BEIRUT — On Saturday, aid groups accused Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria of carrying out a suspected chemical attack in the rebel-held suburb of Douma, east of Damascus. That would mean Assad has once again violated a string of U.N. Security Council resolutions and warnings regarding his use of chemical weapons. Casualty figures range from 40 to 70 killed and hundreds to thousands injured.
The international response has thus far been familiar: Words such as “monster,” “vicious” and “unacceptable” are being recycled in news statements and interviews; another round of strikes on Syrian regime facilities appears to be on the table, with Russia warning of “grave repercussions” in the case of a U.S. military response. President Trump warned Wednesday morning that missile strikes “will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart’!” and that Russia “shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
After the last time Assad used chemical weapons, almost exactly a year ago, U.S. strikes on a Syrian airfield did little to deter him. An effective U.S. response this time should take into account the overall brutality with which the Syrian president has conducted this war — including the use of chemical weapons but also other atrocities that the world has up until now shrugged off.
The signal that the international community for years has given Assad is that conventional military tactics that may constitute war crimes are acceptable, while chemical weapons use is (sometimes) not. With some calling this a “defining moment” for Trump, it is critical for him and his aides to refrain from an emotional, one-off strike that would do nothing to change Assad’s behavior, and instead work to prevent any further war crimes and crimes against humanity.
As both the Obama and Trump administrations have previously demonstrated, the core U.S. interest in Syria has been the defeat of the Islamic State. Second on the list of U.S. national security concerns is, as Trump’s new national security adviser John Bolton recently articulated, to “prevent people from violating treaties that try to restrict the use or the spread of weapons of mass destruction.”
However, given the unfathomable suffering that has beset the Syrian people at the hands of this brutal regime, the unwillingness of the international community to threaten action unless the Islamic State (ISIS) or chemical weapons are involved (and even then, only selectively) is doing much more harm than good. In all the current discussions about next steps, one element is noticeably and consistently absent: Syria’s civilians, who for the past several years have lived in a terrifying hell on Earth, often unable to leave their houses. In December, the Syrian Network for Human Rights estimated that the regime had dropped nearly 70,000 barrel bombs since July 2012 — and sometimes forced people to watch as children slowly starved to death.
Assad knows he will not be punished for the myriad war crimes and crimes against humanity that his regime has committed. The International Mechanism gathering evidence for a trial that may or may not take place in the future is probably a source of great amusement to a dictator who for the past eight years has been allowed to operate with impunity.
It is therefore time to redraw the “red line” to cover war crimes and crimes against humanity even when they involve “only” conventional weapons, including the targeting of medical facilities and ambulances (265 of which had been struck as of 2016). For as long as the United States continues to narrowly define its national security interests as the defeat of ISIS and the prevention of the use of chemical weapons, Syrians will continue to suffer unspeakable horrors under the international community’s watch. Syrian refugees will continue to spill into neighboring countries, causing unsustainable strain on their economies and social fabric, and the United States and its partners will continue to spend billions of dollars to address the spillover effects.
Changing what behavior the United States will tolerate from Assad need not conflict with Trump’s goal of removing U.S. troops from Syria following the physical destruction of the ISIS caliphate. Trump, like President Barack Obama before him, is correct to avoid another costly ground operation in the Middle East, particularly one that would surely involve a direct confrontation with Russia. But any strikes that Trump is prepared to order on chemical-weapons-related targets could, and should, be expanded to include units, personnel or facilities involved in identifiable war crimes or crimes against humanity, such as airfields and aircraft used to drop bombs on hospitals or on ambulances en route to the scene of an attack.
Going after medical targets is, as U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley made clear at the U.N. Security Council, deliberately meant to maximize the number of dead civilians. Trump could therefore threaten sanctions against Assad’s protector, Russian President Vladimir Putin, if Assad targets or hinders medical personnel or facilities. The president also could direct the Pentagon to draw up a list of targets that would send a clear message to Assad that the United States will no longer sit idly by while war crimes are being perpetrated on a regular basis. Finally, these actions should be taken in coordination with international partners and in consultation with Congress.
Trump and Haley have called Assad “an animal” and a “monster,” respectively. Assad did not become those things because he used chemical weapons in Douma; he is an animal and a monster because he has spent the past eight years bombing, starving and torturing to death hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians. To prove to Assad that he will be held accountable, and to prevent him from carrying out mass murder through any means, it is long past time for the Trump administration to deem those actions equally unacceptable, and to ensure that any action taken is part of a coherent and consistent strategy that takes into account both U.S. national security interests and basic humanitarian principles.
For years, the Obama administration (where I worked as an adviser on Syria policy) allowed Assad to believe that his barbaric reign remained below the threshold of any U.S. red line by rejecting direct action in Syria. The 11th-hour decision to refrain from punishing Assad for his use of chemical weapons affected our relationships with key allies as well as, according to former defense secretaries Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel, U.S. credibility. Even indirect action, such as the failed $500 million Train and Equip program, was explicitly meant to target the Islamic State, not the Assad regime. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians suffered as a result of these policies. In the name of humanity as well as national security, the Trump administration should avoid making the same mistakes.