Why the Trump Doctrine Dictates Assad Must Go
As the Trump administration nears its 100th day in office, it has taken much-needed steps internationally, particularly in Syria. But while the latest U.S. military action retaliating for the gassing of Khan Sheikoun was long overdue, even more can be done.
With over 400,000 deaths, five million registered Syrian refugees, and the continuation of Assad’s scorched-earth tactics, Syria will not become an island of stability any time soon, and especially after ISIS is ousted from its Raqqa stronghold. Rather, Syria will remain polarized, politicized, and perilous unless Assad and his enablers are removed from power.
Over the last few weeks, we have heard some argue that President Donald Trump’s ‘America first’ organizing principle is fundamentally incompatible with an ‘Assad must go’ strategy. However, promoting ‘America first,’ while pursuing a future without Assad are not mismatched goals in the era of Trump. One should look no further than the guideposts of the president’s emerging agenda on the world stage: gutting ISIS; checking Iran; and toughening immigration controls. Tackling any one priority successfully would necessitate Assad’s removal.
Back in 2014, then Secretary of State John Kerry called Bashar al-Assad a “super-magnet for terrorism.” The U.S. intelligence community estimates that more than 36,500 foreign fighters—including at least 6,600 from Western countries—from over 100 countries have traveled to Syria alone since 2012 to join Salafi terrorist groups.
That is not to mention the Shiite jihadists who have decamped to Syria to bolster the ranks of the Assad regime. For instance, up to 10,000 Hezbollah fighters have deployed to Syria, alongside a patchwork of Shiite militiamen from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond. In the end, it is Assad who has provided a cause and a platform for terrorists from across the Islamic world—one that cannot be bombed away in the eventual clearing of Raqqa.
In addition to manpower, Assad’s money has reigned supreme in sustaining ISIS. According to U.S. and European officials, oil and gas sales to the Assad regime are now the largest source of funds for ISIS in Syria, replacing revenue collected from tolls involved in the transportation of goods around the country and from taxes on wages. Such an infusion of cash—which provided over $1 million per day at peak levels—has become a lifeline to ISIS given its dwindling territory and personnel.
So, if the Trump administration wants to defeat “radical Islamic terrorism,” then Assad’s ouster must be a part of the equation.
The strategy to achieve “America first” also includes confronting outside forces that are propping up Assad’s government, mainly the Iranian regime, which spends $6 billion annually to ensure the Syrian president remains in power. Most importantly, Syria serves as a strategic land-bridge for Iran to its proxy Hezbollah’s stronghold in Lebanon and has been the geographic base for the regime to transfer arms to Hezbollah.
Consider the difference that Iran and Assad have made to Hezbollah’s arsenal: in 2006, it had 13,000 short- and medium-range rockets that could target northern Israel. Fast-forward to 2015, Israeli estimates put the number at 100,000 rockets and missiles, including long-range systems. If President Trump wants to crack down on Iran and its regional meddling, Tehran’s client—Assad—must go.
Lastly, Trump’s base should be inherently drawn to Assad’s departure—and therefore a more robust U.S. role in Syria—given his connection to the refugee crisis, which has enveloped Europe and stoked fears of terrorists masquerading as asylum-seekers in the United States. It is Assad who has barrel-bombed millions of his countrymen into disaffection, alienation, and starvation, increasing the potential for radicalization. Moreover, it is therefore, evicting Assad—and his failed state—which is inherently a part of any blueprint for enhanced immigration security.
Dethroning the Syrian president should not be an end in itself, but rather the means to ensuring a stable government and a durable peace. That will require the preservation of some state institutions to prevent anarchy and terrorist organizations—Sunni and Shiite—and states like Iran from filling the void. But fundamentally, if America is to remain first in U.S. foreign policy priorities, Assad must go.
Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran. He is on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.