The latest events in Syria are a turning point for the Trump administration.
The chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime, and the surgical strike sent by the American administration by the limited attack on the Shayrat airfield, is an opportunity for the United States to make a clear distinction between the American and Western approaches to counterterrorism.
The brutal and indiscriminate approach used by Russia and its partners in the region has undermined security and prolonged the crisis.
In his first two months in office, President Donald Trump offered hints that America should follow Russia’s example on counterterrorism and that America might try to align with Russia inside of Syria.
But the chemical attack in Syria—combined with some growing signs of possible blowback against Russia on the terrorism front—has forced Trump to re-evaluate and recalibrate.
The Russian model combines the use of massive and indiscriminate force while disregarding the fundamental principles of counterterrorism practiced by most Western nations, such as separating and protecting innocent civilians. These innocent civilians are often forced to comply with terrorist groups’ orders and serve as human shields for the terrorists themselves.
The recent and tragic suicide attack in a St. Petersburg train station, which killed 14 and wounded dozens, raises additional doubts about Russia’s approach to terrorism. Before the St. Petersburg attack, Russia had not faced significant blowback in its territory for its intervention on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria.
There were several hypotheses explaining why there had been no terrorist attacks against Russia despite its brutal tactics in Syria. One hypothesis held that Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of populated areas like Aleppo, for instance, deterred terrorist organizations like ISIS from attacking Russian targets.
Another hypothesis stated that aggressive and efficient counterterrorism policies within Russia’s own borders prevented jihadi attacks.
A third hypothesis, developed by analysts focused on the strategy of extremist jihadi groups, hinted at a possible unwritten understanding between Russia and the Islamic State to avoid or limit the scope of their confrontation in Syria to focus instead on greater threats to their respective interests.
Finally, terrorist groups like ISIS and Hayat Tahrir al Sham could have simply focused on managing their resources to survive confrontation and conflict with their internal and external enemies.
Indeed, long and close observation of Salafi-jihadi groups shows that their previous patterns of behavior and ways of thinking exhibit what they call “Saber” (historic patience). As a result, these terrorist organizations delay attacking their enemies until they believe the time is ripe.
Whatever the case may turn out to be, it should be clear that Russia’s ruthless counterterrorism approach has not stopped terrorism. Neither indiscriminate bombing in heavily populated urban areas nor the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons have deterred ISIS or other groups.
Indeed, Russia may face increasing attacks in Syria. The threat may come not only from ISIS but from other opposition groups that have suffered from Russian intensive bombing backing Assad’s heavy-handed military campaign over the last year and a half. Some of these groups could also direct or inspire violence in Russia and the Caucuses.
Even worse, indiscriminate bombing undermines the moral advantage of democratic societies, because terrorists often justify their narrative by saying that terrorism is conducted by the hypocrite states as well. Losing this moral edge may eventually threaten the very existence of liberal democracies as they take actions that further the strategic goals of terrorist groups.
During last year’s presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader whose alleged toughness provided a worthy model of leadership. These gestures have been followed by even more positive statements by President Trump toward Putin and Russia, along with exploratory meetings to expand cooperation between the two countries.
President Trump also promised during his campaign to bomb ISIS until there was “nothing left.” Although no formal policy changes have been announced, the first weeks of Trump’s presidency brought an uptick in civilian casualties from U.S. strikes, including what may be the greatest loss of innocent life from a single U.S. military strike in Mosul since the Vietnam War.
President Trump and his administration should recognize the fundamental differences between the Russian and Western approaches to fighting terrorism. These approaches are based on fundamentally different values, and America’s European allies look to the U.S. president as a model and leader of their own.
The catastrophic ramifications of the Russian’s axis model should be a bright red warning light for Mr. Trump. Trump should steer away from Putin’s path, and, most importantly, reconsider his instructions to loosen some of the rules of engagement he deemed “too careful” in the fight against terrorism.
Defeating terrorist groups can only be achieved under the American and Western approach rooted in fundamental rights and protection of the innocent per lawfare principles, and not the model used by Russia and its partners.
The expected visit of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Moscow next week would be a good opportunity to return to the difficult task of seeking a solution to the Syrian crisis. This approach could turn the latest U.S. military maneuver into a diplomatic asset and at the same time reinforce American deterrence in the Middle East and beyond
Yoram Schweitzer is a fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior research fellow and head of the Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict Program at the Institute for National Security Studies.
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