It was a very cold night on Jan. 28, 2017. Thousands of Chicagoans from all backgrounds were rallying at O’Hare International Airport and other airports around the country against a travel ban President Donald Trump had just signed into law. The executive order restricted travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Syria.
One of the posters carried by three Catholic nuns from the South Side read “We are all Muslims now,” and others read “Refugees Welcome” and “Jews in support for Muslim rights.” It was a heartwarming rally in contrast to the chilling news coming from the White House.
Trump’s executive order, issued shortly after his inauguration, lowered the number of refugees to be admitted into the United States and suspended the entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely. That was a defining moment in his presidency and telling of things to come.
To millions of people, it indicated that the new president did not believe in the American values of compassion, freedom and opportunity. It meant that our nation abdicated its moral responsibility toward Syrians and other persecuted people and that the U.S. was not open anymore to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
But despite that troubling first step, Trump has had opportunities through his presidency to succeed with American policy toward Syria in areas where his predecessor, Barack Obama, failed. Instead, Trump, too, has failed.
The decadelong Syrian crisis has changed the world. One out of four refugees in the world is from Syria. There are 24 million refugees in the world, and among them are 5.6 million who fled Syrian President Bashar Assad’s persecution, barrel-bombs and chemical weapons, as well as an unleashed the Islamic State group. They fled the Russian and Iranian bombings of schools, markets and hospitals. They fled the world’s apathy. Tens of thousands of them crossed the Mediterranean Sea on clumsy boats into Europe. Alan Kurdi, a Syrian child in a red shirt, drowned. We wept, paid some attention, then turned the other way.
The large-scale displacement triggered anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiments in the West, and as a presidential candidate, Trump exploited such sentiment to his advantage. The Syrian crisis also contributed to a rise of terrorism, hate groups, xenophobia and destabilization of Europe.
After 10 years of war, Syria is a failed state, but it is still ruled by the same person who defied President Obama’s red lines. The same person who normalized chemical weapons by using them against his people 336 times, according to Global Public Policy Institute.
Now, Syria is ravaged by COVID-19 and economic collapse. Islamic State is regaining strength. More than 1.4 million civilians, according to a Human Rights Watch report, have been displaced in 2020 following a Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance assault on the opposition-held Northwest Idlib province. It could’ve been worse — an additional 3.5 million new refugees were nearly pushed to Turkey and Europe, but that nightmarish scenario was averted by a late Turkish military intervention. The U.S. stood on the sidelines.
The void created by the retreat of U.S. leadership is being filled by other actors.
In an interview with CBS News, Joe Biden’s foreign policy adviser Antony Blinken said: “The last (Obama) administration has to acknowledge that we failed, not for want of trying but we failed. We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life. We failed to prevent the massive displacement of people internally in Syria and, of course, externally as refugees. What happened, unfortunately, since then is that a horrific situation was made arguably even worse.”
Trump inherited the failed policies of his predecessor in Syria. He had a golden opportunity to end the crisis after defeating Islamic State and showing Assad that he meant business by responding to the two major chemical weapons attacks in Khan Sheikhoun in 2017 and Douma in 2018.
“Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered. No child should ever suffer such horror,” Trump said after the deadly attack in Khan Sheikhoun.
His measured response earned bipartisan support at home and from many world leaders. He had an opportunity to assert the leadership of the U.S. and curb the influence of Iran and Russia. He could have pressured his friend Vladimir Putin to agree on a political settlement that would have opened the door for the return of refugees, national reconciliation, transitional justice and reconstruction.
But he bungled the opportunity.
To add insult to injury, he pulled most U.S. troops from northern Syria in 2019, leaving our Syrian allies, who fought to defeat Islamic State, alone to face the wrath of Assad, Turkey and Russia. Trump’s Defense Secretary Jim Mattis disagreed with the decision and resigned.
Yes, in late 2019 Trump signed legislation that imposes travel and financial sanctions against an expanding list of individuals and entities who aid the Syrian regime. Many believe it’s a good, and probably the only, practical step at this point. But others say sanctions never change the behavior of genocidal regimes.
Diplomatically, Trump has been outmaneuvered by Putin multiple times. Russia forced the United Nations Security Council to reduce the border crossings needed for humanitarian aid from five to only one. The U.S. has been irrelevant in the stalled U.N.-sponsored negotiations for the future of Syria. Russia, Turkey and Iran have the upper hand.
Syria is as far from a political settlement as ever. Iran has gained more foothold in strategic territories, and a recent report shows that Assad is still developing chemical weapons. More than 4.5 million Syrian civilians, a quarter of the population, have been displaced during Trump’s presidency. In 2020, fewer than 100 Syrian refugees were resettled in the U.S. compared with 12,500 in 2016.
If elected, Biden has promised to learn from past mistakes in Syria. He has promised to increase our humanitarian assistance to Syrians, not abandon our Kurdish and Arab allies, and work with our allies to revitalize the political process toward peace. More importantly, he has pledged to revoke the controversial travel ban on the first day of his administration.
When I met Obama at the White House in 2013, I told him that his legacy would be determined in part by what he did in Syria. Trump’s legacy will be determined by many factors, including the appointment of three conservative justices to the Supreme Court, promotion of hate and conspiracy theories and his failures at many fronts globally and domestically, especially in the fight against COVID-19 that resulted in more than 220,000 deaths in the U.S.
Syria could have been an easy win for Trump, but he bungled the opportunity.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Zaher Sahloul is a pulmonary and critical care physician at Christ Advocate Medical Center and president of MedGlobal, a medical charity that builds resilience in disaster regions.
©2020 Chicago Tribune