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Avoid prolonged U.S. military role in Syria; push for peace

Children review manuals distributed by UNICEF-supported volunteers while

Children review manuals distributed by UNICEF-supported volunteers while sitting amid rubble in Aleppo, Syria, in January 2017. Credit: AP

President Donald Trump sent an important message to President Bashar Assad and the Russian and Iranian governments that support him: Gassing Syria’s children won’t be tolerated, nor will lying about divesting your nation of the chemical weapons the Damascus government used in an attack that killed more than 80 civilians this week.

For years, Trump had preached a calculated, hands-off approach in the region. But this week, as president, he expressed outrage at images of civilians writhing in agony after the apparent Sarin attack. He has learned how hard it is not to act in the face of brutality. Now, he must confront the challenges of acting effectively.

Syria’s civil war presents only desperately thorny options. Assad is a murderous dictator. Most of the insurgents, whom we strengthen by weakening Assad’s regime, are jihadists. The Islamic State forces so violently arrayed against the United States are among the most powerful of the groups seeking to overthrow him.

A hands-off approach to the continuing civil war that allows Russia and Iran to keep Assad in power through force against his people would be a disaster. But so would a U.S. intervention that leads the insurgents to seize control, or leaves the United States trapped in an endless peacekeeping commitment to the region that would win it more enemies than friends. Thursday’s strike is a stark message, but it cannot become a standard response.

Diplomacy is the path to relative peace and stability and out of a conflict that has killed up to 500,000 people and displaced more than 10 million. Trump has said he wanted to work with Russia, and that is the path to peace. Russia can bring along Iran. Assad has to go, and the most trustworthy of the insurgents have to be empowered, and have to make peace with government supporters. If Trump’s bombing moves Syria down that path, it will be a success. But to let it lead to an escalating U.S. military involvement would be a terrible mistake. — The editorial board