Ever since the Arab Spring, the extreme and now seemingly intractable conflict in Syria has gone from bad to worse.
All told, describing the situation using words like dire and catastrophic does not begin to capture just how truly awful the Syrian Civil War has been and continues to be.
Upwards of 400 thousand Syrians are dead, and 11 million people —roughly half of the country’s population — have been displaced and driven from their homes.
But if the degree of horror in the war is difficult to comprehend, the complexity of it is almost inconceivable.
When the Arab Spring gripped Syria a few years ago, the conflict first took the form of a two-front battle: the rebels — who see the current Syrian government as illegitimate and unfit to rule — and Bashar al-Assad and his ruling group, the embattled Alawite minority who believe that there will essentially be a blood bath in the country if they lose power.
The problem, of course, is that for quite some time Syria has been a land where the governing powers kill their own citizens on a disturbingly large scale. The Alawites need not fear a mass execution of innocent people, as one is already well underway.
Many sides have committed atrocities, but it is understood by almost all outside observers that Assad’s government commits the overwhelming majority of them.
Yet the war can hardly be understood as dichotomous, since sectarian and ethnic divisions within the country exacerbate the overarching battle between the rebels and the government, and the effective proxy-war that the U.S. and Russia are currently engaged in harks back to what U.S.-Russia relations felt like in the days of the Cold War.
Russia has generally sided with the Assad regime — a position that virtually all of the international community considers to be untenable — and the U.S. has attempted to support various moderate opposition groups in the hopes of ameliorating the conflict without becoming directly involved.
And, if all of that were not complicated enough, the notorious self-proclaimed Islamic State continues to profit from the intense divisions, violence and unrest that have ravaged the region for years.
The horrific war, which is obviously disastrous for all who are involved, is nonetheless a gift to the Islamic State and other terrorist groups like it, who thrive in environments where mass casualties and political turmoil are unavoidable facts of life.
In short, the U.S. must exercise extraordinary caution when considering what it should do with regard to foreign policy in and around Syria.
What America needs most in these moments is a strong, informed, collected leader who can discern what the right and wrong moves are in the region.
Yet the American people’s choice for president tremendously complicates this task.
Putting aside the fact that Trump has almost no support in the American foreign policy establishment, he has yet to articulate any definitive position on U.S. foreign policy at all. He once even said that his plan was to “bomb ISIS and take the oil.”
That proposal, like many of Trump’s others, is a sweeping generality that cannot be translated into any concrete action.
Trump has repeatedly expressed a desire to establish better relations with Russia, and given how bad they are now, he is probably right to suggest that measure.
However, while it would certainly be wise for America to reach out to Russian leaders in some way, Russia’s support for the Assad regime serves as a line that the U.S. cannot cross.
Over the years, the U.S. has made a habit of getting into problems that it has no hope of getting out of, and backing Assad’s government would be no different.
President Obama has continually called for Assad to step down, and basically the entire world views the Syrian leader as a war criminal.
If the U.S. were to embrace Russia to that degree, if it were to accept the country’s position on Syria and adopt it for itself, America would be doing nothing short of a deal with the devil.
The rest of the world would likely be appalled, and the near-total reversal of policy would be almost laughable.
It is somewhat unlikely that the U.S. would actually back Assad’s government, but if Trump has taught us anything so far it is that nothing can be taken for granted.
Even despite the incoming Trump Administration, the U.S. must hold firm to its fierce opposition to the Syrian government, and Trump must realize that not all political questions — and indeed very few of them — can be solved through an uncompromising stance or a business deal.