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US takes Assad off the hook

Amid the awful, bloody mess into which the Syrian civil war has descended, one central fact needs to be remembered:

More than 94 percent of the more than 200,000 civilians who have died in the conflict have been killed by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and his allies.

It is to the lasting shame of Barack Obama that– despite his stated goal of removing Assad from power– he could never manage more than a half-hearted and confused effort to help rescue the Syrian people from Assad’s murderous campaign. His own ambassador to Damascus resigned in protest of Obama’s failure to act more forcefully.

Of course we had no right to expect anything better from a Trump administration. What we have got is a good deal worse.

It is no longer even the stated policy of the US that Assad needs to go.

The White House on Friday backed top aides’ comments that the United States is not now focused on making Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leave power, saying the U.S. focus is on defeating Islamic State militants.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Thursday drew criticism for playing down a long-standing U.S. goal of persuading Assad to leave power to help end the six-year-long Syrian civil war.

Tillerson said Assad’s future is up to the Syrian people to decide, while Haley said “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”

At his daily news briefing, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that regarding Assad, “there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now.”

Spicer blamed the inability of Trump’s predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama, to persuade Assad to step down.

The Obama administration, in its later years, was focused on reaching a deal with Russia that would eventually see Assad go, though it also shifted its focus to the fight against Islamic State militants, who captured swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014.

The proper response to Obama’s failure to remove Assad is not to announce that it is no longer even an objective.

Senator John McCain was right in his scathing criticism of Obama’s failure in Syria, and he’s right about the Trump administration’s position:

“Secretary of State Tillerson said today that the longer-term status of Bashar Assad ‘will be decided by the Syrian people.’ But this overlooks the tragic reality that the Syrian people cannot decide the fate of Assad or the future of their country when they are being slaughtered by Assad’s barrel bombs, Putin’s aircraft, and Iran’s terrorist proxies. U.S. policy must reflect such basic facts.

“Ultimately, the administration’s statements today could lead America’s true allies and partners in the fight against ISIS to fear the worst: a Faustian bargain with Assad and Putin sealed with an empty promise of counterterrorism cooperation. Such a policy would only exacerbate the terrorist threat to our nation… Trying to fight ISIS while pretending that we can ignore the Syrian civil war that was its genesis and fuels it to this day is a recipe for more war, more terror, more refugees, and more instability. I hope President Trump will make clear that America will not follow this self-destructive and self-defeating path.”

Not much hope of that, I’m afraid. The Trump administration is adopting a foreign policy under which human rights in other countries are unlikely to receive much lip service, let alone serious support.

Update: Assad is off the hook for (among other atrocities) this.