The tragedy in Syria has reached another milestone, as the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad advances on the rebel-held territory of Idlib in the northwest. Most of the rebel fighters belong to the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate. But the 3 million civilians living in Idlib will bear the brunt of the assault by the Assad regime and its Russian ally. Many of those residents are refugees from other parts of the country who arrived during nine years of war, which took 500,000 lives and displaced more than 16 million people.

To escape the rain of death from Russian airstrikes, nearly 600,000 people  -- almost all of them women and children -- are trying to reach the relative safety of the Turkish border. They sleep on the sides of roads and burn clothing to keep warm. Meanwhile, Turkey, their hoped-for destination, is already home to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees.

The numbers are mindboggling, and the actual devastation to humanity is inexcusable. The Assad regime, Russia, Iran and Sunni terror groups like Islamic State are responsible for this travesty, and will hopefully be brought to justice one day.  

Still, a nagging question remains: What was the U.S. role in this decade-long tragedy? Certainly, America’s motives were positive, although they were often short-lived: Oust Assad, defeat Isis, ally with the Kurds, oppose the use of chemical weapons.

Yet it all went wrong. Assad is entrenched. His regime used chemical weapons against the Syrian people. Russia has become the regional superpower. Iranian influence has spread from Tehran to Beirut. America’s influence is diminished. The Kurds have been abandoned.

Although President Trump is correct that the U.S. is tired of “endless wars,” we have also been unable to develop a sustained, focused and fully committed approach to the problem in Syria. In the words of Robert Moore in The Hill, “a coherent policy never emerged, in large part because the American public was at odds with where Congress and even the Obama administration were on Syria.” 

The Syrian refugee crisis has reverberated throughout the Middle East and led to a xenophobic backlash in Europe as it deals with an influx of refugees. What can the United States do, aside from wringing our hands? For one thing, we can welcome more Syrian refugees here. We can increase humanitarian aid – including mental health support – for the millions of people who fled Syria. And we can take the lead in crafting a solution with our allies to resolve this veritable humanitarian catastrophe. JN

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