David Adesnik: In Syria, Trump should act to save thousands of lives

There is a humanitarian emergency in northwest Syria in the province of Idlib. The population there was already suffering from the long and brutal civil war that began in 2011, but a new offensive by President Bashar Assad’s forces has driven more than 900,000 civilians from their homes over the past month.

Families on the run are living outdoors. Infants have frozen to death while sleeping. Primitive heaters have burned down tents with children inside.

President Trump has an opportunity to save thousands of lives in Syria – or even tens of thousands – if he speaks out forcefully about this catastrophe. This approach may even work without airstrikes like the ones Trump ordered in 2017 and 2018 after the Assad regime used chemical weapons against civilians.

RUSSIA-BACKED SYRIA OFFENSIVE SEES HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS JAMMED AT TURKEY BORDER, CHILDREN DYING, UN SAYS

But Trump needs to focus his attention on Syria and act now. Above all, he should insist on Russian agreement to an immediate cease-fire, since Assad’s forces cannot continue their offensive without Russian support.

The best reason to hope that diplomatic pressure can work is that it did once before, when Assad was preparing to launch a similar offensive in Idlib in 2018. That September, Trump sent a tough warning on Twitter to the Syrian dictator. Two weeks later, there was a cease-fire arranged by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump’s warning may have been effective because of the implied threat of tougher measures in the event Putin ignored him.

Trump took action in 2018 because a handful of Syrian-American activists brought the crisis to his attention. Shortly after the cease-fire, Trump explained why he did,

“I was at a meeting with a lot of supporters,” Trump said, “and a woman stood up and she said, ‘There’s a province in Syria with 3 million people. Right now, the Iranians, the Russians and the Syrians are surrounding their province. And they’re going to kill my sister. And they’re going to kill millions of people in order to get rid of 25,000 or 35,000 terrorists.’”

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There are, in fact, a lot of terrorists in Idlib. Trump ordered an airstrike last summer to take out some of the most dangerous Al Qaeda operatives in the region. That is the right approach, but Russia, Iran, and Assad do it differently. They deliberately bomb homes, schools, and hospitals to drive civilians away from suspected terrorist bases. Their strategy is to commit one war crime after another.

The woman who stood up and told President Trump about the situation in Syria was Dr. Rim Albezem, a cardiologist from Pennsylvania who left Syria at age 23 to study medicine in the U.S. She and other leaders in the Syrian-American community believed their personal stories would move the president in a way that policy memos never could. They knew that seeing babies choke on poison gas had changed the president’s thinking about Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

The challenge for Albezem and her friends was finding a way to connect with the president one-on-one. They decided to reach out to him in a setting where he would be surrounded by his most committed supporters and ready to listen. That meant raising enough money to buy two tickets for a fundraiser at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort, along with another event for Trump supporters in Indiana.

I saw Albezem this past weekend at a conference of Syrian-American leaders in Chicago. The men and women I met were deeply worried about the situation in Idlib, but had tremendous confidence that President Trump would do the right thing.

The confidence they had in the president was not a matter of partisanship. Throughout the weekend, participants kept saying that they had been lifelong Democrats, but now trusted President Trump to prevent new atrocities in Syria.

In contrast, the people I spoke with expected the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination to let Russia and Iran call the shots in Syria, just as President Barack Obama had done.

I hope Albezem and other Syrian-American leaders meet with the president as soon as possible to tell him about the emergency in Idlib. I am worried that if Trump does not hear from them personally, he will not focus on Syria.

When a reporter asked the president what he would do about the crisis, Trump seemed to pass the buck to his Turkish counterpart.

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“You have a lot of warring going on right now. A lot of warring going on,” Trump said, “But I’m dealing with President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan.”

Yet it is Trump’s words, not Erdogan’s, that carry the weight of American power. Above all, Trump needs to get through to Putin, whose air force provides essential support to the Syrian troops and Iranian militias fighting on the ground.

Putin should fear that ignoring Trump will harm the U.S.-Russia relationship and reduce the unusual goodwill that Trump has shown toward Russia.

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It is indispensable for Trump to have a private conversation with Putin in addition to issuing public warnings verbally and on Twitter. Trump should also coordinate with U.S. allies – especially Britain, France and Germany – to reinforce the message that there needs to be an immediate cease-fire in Idlib.

Putin is ruthless, so there’s no guarantee this plan will work. But with so many lives on the line, there is every reason to try.

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