Can the Norm of Atrocity Prevention Survive the Syrian War?

Can the Norm of Atrocity Prevention Survive the Syrian War?
Still frame from video provided by Doctors Without Borders shows a house on fire in Aleppo, Syria, Oct. 5, 2016 (Doctors Without Borders via AP).

Will the next American president be able to save Syria? No. What about the international norm of preventing atrocities against civilians? Again, no. That’s ultimately the takeaway from the short exchange about Syria in Sunday’s mostly awful Town Hall-style debate between U.S. presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

While Trump is more aligned with President Barack Obama’s reticence toward escalating America’s military involvement in Syria than Clinton, neither candidate offered any big new ideas about the conflict. The long-term worry is not just about how the obvious limits to American power in this crisis will affect other issues, but also about the erosion of the international norm known as the responsibility to protect.

The discussion about Syria came in response to an anguished question from an undecided voter about stopping the humanitarian catastrophe. Trump avoided answering the question directly, but made clear that he would see benefit in working with Russia in Syria, and would give priority to defeating the so-called Islamic State before focusing on ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He also stated his opposition to the use of military force to deter further Russian aggression in Syria, revealing a disconnect between him and his vice presidential running mate. Trump’s policy preferences mirror Obama’s, although the president’s views might have changed since Moscow’s abandonment of the latest negotiated cease-fire and all-out military support for the Syrian regime’s brutal attack on Aleppo.

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