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There’s a reason why two such disparate presidents have suffered this common dilemma: For Washington, the Syrian civil war is a no-win situation. If you want to back the rebels, you end up supporting radical Islamists who could exploit yet another dysfunctional Arab state and harbor anti-American terrorists. If you seek to support the only force capable of defeating the rebels, you end up backing a war criminal and Iran’s close friend, President Bashar al-Assad.
On the whole, U.S. policy through both Obama and Trump has become one of tolerating Assad over the alternative while not saying so and looking the other way. Certainly one could argue the United States should be supplying more humanitarian aid, but there is not much else Washington can do. If the Russians and Iranians have no compunctions about propping Assad up, then they’re essentially doing America’s dirty work—killing radical Islamists (along with many thousands of innocents, tragically)—and at little cost to the United States, except in terms of its image as a global benefactor.
This is America’s unspoken (and largely bipartisan) Syria policy. It’s the best that Washington can muster, many analysts say, and in the coldest of national interest calculations it hasn’t produced the worst of outcomes. For the last several years, various U.S. enemies have been knocking each other off in great numbers there: Sunni jihadis in Syria, joined by Iraqi Sunni insurgents across the border, on the one hand, and Iran-backed Hezbollah Shiites, as well as the Assad government, on the other.
Beyond that, there is little in Syria for U.S. interests but “sand and death,” as Trump put it bluntly last week. It has no real strategic value. True, Syria is a horrific humanitarian disaster, but Washington really isn’t in the business of intervening in those anymore, not since the catastrophe of Iraq and the blowback from Libya. Indeed, by fudging and hedging for years over what to do—and giving limited support to rebels—Washington has probably only prolonged the war and made the humanitarian crisis worse for Syria and for Europe, which has suffered from the huge refugee outflow.