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Editorial: Assad is a brutal despot, but overthrowing him shouldn’t be part of America’s mission right now

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria on Dec. 11, 2017.
(Mikhail Klimentyev / Associated Press)

President Trump on Monday indicated that he will decide soon whether the United States would respond to the Syrian government’s suspected use of chemical weapons against its own people. Trump rightly described as “atrocious” Saturday night’s apparent poison gas attack on a Damascus suburb in which dozens of people died. He even made a rare criticism of Russia’s president, saying Vladimir Putin may bear responsibility for the actions of his ally and client Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But even if Trump launches a military strike — as he did a year ago in similar circumstances — the objective should be to punish Assad for violating an international norm, not to oust him from power. Nor does the chemical attack argue for (or against) the continued presence of 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. Those forces were sent to Syria to combat the unique threat posed by Islamic State, not to overthrow Assad.

Last year, Trump responded to the use of chemical weapons with a missile strike. Chemical agents were used anyway.

It’s tragic that Assad, who brutally repressed his nation’s version of the “Arab Spring,” has now crushed most of his opposition and faces little pressure to step aside or even share power as part of the “political transition” called for in a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions. That is a result not only of his own ruthlessness but the support he has received from Russia, which has championed his cause at the U.N. and, more important, come to his rescue militarily, launching airstrikes on opposition forces beginning in 2015.

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Assad also has benefited from the fact that among his opponents were Islamic State and other Islamic extremists — and that the United States ultimately (and rightly) saw the defeat of Islamic State as a higher priority than regime change in Damascus. It was to counter Islamic State that Barack Obama and then Trump authorized the use of military force in Syria, a country with which the U.S. was not at war and which didn’t invite U.S. forces to intervene.

Last month, Trump raised eyebrows when he told an audience in Ohio: “We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.” Subsequently, the president was reportedly convinced by his advisors that the troops would need to remain in Syria for several months to deal with remaining concentrations of Islamic State fighters and to train local forces to deal with new threats.

That’s a reasonable argument, and it echoes a statement by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in January that U.S. troops would remain in Syria to ensure that Islamic State “cannot reemerge.” But it differs from the more expansive mission that some have advanced for a U.S. military presence in Syria: to carve out a “protectorate” that would deny Assad control of some of his territory and undermine the influence of Syria’s ally Iran. That is a much more open-ended and, to us, troubling rationale for deployment of U.S. troops in a foreign country — especially in the absence of an authorization for such a deployment from Congress, without backing and assistance from the U.N. or other countries around the world, and with no indication that the American people have the will or the fortitude for another protracted military commitment in the years ahead.

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But what about deterring the use by Assad of chemical weapons? After Saturday night’s attack, Sen. John McCain suggested that Trump’s talk of withdrawing U.S. troops might have emboldened Assad to launch the chemical attack. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders took exception to the idea that Trump’s comments “greenlit” the use of chemical weapons. She has a point. For one thing, the troops were still in the country at the time of the attack (albeit in another location). For another, the relevant evidence of U.S. intentions would seem to be the fact that last year Trump did respond to the use of chemical weapons with a missile strike. Chemical agents were used anyway.

Sanders added: “The president wants to bring our troops home after we complete the mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria. At the same time he wants to make sure Assad is deterred from chemical weapons attacks.” Both goals are worth pursuing, but it’s a mistake to try to connect them.

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