Last November, before some shocking celebrity deaths and a shocking New Year’s Eve non-performance by Mariah Carey dominated the airwaves, there was a brief moment where the world trained its fickle eye on a truly tragic story: the Syrian genocide.
There was a global gasp at the sheer brutality of the Russian onslaught, the helplessness of Syrian families and the stinging reality that Aleppo was falling. The genocidal dictator Bashar Assad, who has been largely left alone by the U.S. and others to wage a horrific civil war against his own people over the past five years, was on the verge of winning back the city with the help of Vladimir Putin’s overpowering air assaults on innocent civilians.
But what also struck some as terrifying was what had happened just one day earlier, before the attacks: Trump spoke with Putin by telephone.
Kremlin officials said that Putin and Trump discussed the war in Syria and “uniting efforts in the fight with the common enemy number one — international terrorism and extremism.”
That the next day, after Putin’s phone call with Trump, Russia ended a humanitarian ceasefire that had lasted nearly a month was, to put it lightly, worrisome. Trump had indicated earlier his interest in a Russian rapprochement, but would it really include his tacit endorsement of a humanitarian disaster if it pleased Putin?
We don’t really know what Putin and Trump have discussed in terms of future plans in Syria. Nor do we know if Trump believes Russian propaganda — that its airstrikes are only targeting ISIS and terrorists — or if he believes the truth, that Russia has killed more civilians than terrorists or rebels.
But even with those unknowns, there are two ways to view Trump’s coziness with Putin as we look ahead to what can be done to end the Syrian slaughter of more than 500,000 people, 50,000 of which are children.
One — by far the popular view — is that Trump’s fondness for and admiration of Putin will strengthen Russia, and by, proxy, Assad, to continue their retaking of rebel-held Syria unfettered by U.S. calls for ceasefires, no-fly zones and a transition of power. In a way, that wouldn’t look much different than current Obama administration postures.
But the other view puts a different spin on the Trump-Putin bromance, which could actually see the kind of change not possible under Obama. In fact, Donald Trump may be the only person who can end the Syrian bloodshed.
Trump, along with his incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is also friendly to Putin, can strike the ultimate boardroom deal — and that is for a negotiated, long-term ceasefire around Syrian safe zones, allowing Syrian refugees to return home, where they want to be.
Outside of these safe zones, Russia would be free to continue its airstrikes targeting terrorists, but inside of them, Syrians can rebuild, children can go back to school, the injured can receive care and the countries that have taken in millions of refugees can feel some much-needed relief.
In exchange, Russia gets some relief of its own. Over the past few years, U.S. and international bodies have sanctioned Russia to the hilt, with little to show for it. As military expert Michael Kofman, a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, said, “there’s nobody left to sanction in Russia besides the janitor in the Kremlin.” Ease some of these strictures, and Russia can act out of prudence and not economic desperation.
There’s another factor. Trump has said numerous times he plans to end the Iran nuclear deal, which Putin supports. Even if you think that deal should be dismantled, that is a much more complicated undertaking — it was ratified by five other nations and the European Union. With Syria, Trump can negotiate the easier ask for the more immediate win. Knowing Trump, I’m betting he’ll like the sound of that.
So let’s pressure Trump to get himself an early, easy foreign policy and humanitarian triumph by putting that Putin friendship to good use. Safe zones have bipartisan support here at home. From John Kerry to John McCain, it’s an idea many have already proposed. But without President Obama’s buy-in, it was a good idea that had nowhere to go.
Now, President-Elect Trump can finally give safe zones — and the Syrian people — life.
Cupp is on the board of directors of HelpMeGoHome.org, which is seeking safe zones in Syria.
This column originally appeared in the New York Daily News.
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