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Trump’s real-world lesson on Syria

With each passing day our new president is discovering that every big problem he faces is like Obamacare – if there were a good, easy solution it would have been found already.

But Tuesday, tragically, President Trump got this lesson in foreign policy via a truly vile poison-gas attack on Syrian civilians, many of them children, reportedly perpetrated by the pro-Russian, pro-Iranian, murderous regime of Bashar Assad.

President Trump came to office with the naive view that he could make fighting the Islamic State the centerpiece of his Middle East policy – and just drop more bombs and send more special forces than President Obama did to prove his toughness. Trump also seemed to think that fighting ISIS would be a bridge to building a partnership with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

It was naive because ISIS does not exist in a vacuum – nor is it the only bad actor in the region. ISIS was produced as a Sunni Muslim reaction to massive overreach by Iran in Iraq, where Iranian-backed Shiite militias and the Iraqi government forces of Nouri al-Maliki tried to crush all vestiges of Sunni power in that country and make it a vassal of Iran.

The Iranian/Shiite onslaught against Iraqi Sunnis ran parallel with Assad’s Shiite-Alawite regime in Syria, turning what started out as a multisectarian democracy movement in Syria into a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites. Assad figured that if he just gunned down or poison-gassed enough Syrian Sunnis he could turn their democracy efforts into a sectarian struggle against his Shiite-Alawite regime – and presto, it worked.

The opposition almost toppled him, but with the aid of Russia, Iran and Iran’s Hezbollah militia, Assad was able to pummel the Syrian Sunnis into submission as well.

When Trump said he wanted to partner with Russia to crush ISIS, it was music to the ears of Assad, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

So, last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people” – as if the Syrian people will be having an Iowa-like primary on that subject soon. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley made the same point even more cravenly, telling reporters that the United States’ “priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”

Is there any wonder that Assad felt no compunction about perpetrating one of the deadliest chemical weapons attacks in years?

Letting Assad keep trying to restore control over all of Syria will mean endless massacres. And negotiated power-sharing solution is impossible; there is no trust.

The least bad solution is a partition of Syria and the creation of a primarily Sunni protected area – protected by an international force, including, if necessary, some U.S. troops. That should at least stop the killing – and the refugee flows that are fueling a populist-nationalist backlash all across the European Union.

It won’t be pretty or easy. But having NATO and the Arab League establish a safe zone in Syria is worth a try. And then if Putin and Iran want to keep the butcher Assad in Damascus, they can have him.

Thomas L. Friedman writes for the New York Times.

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