President Bashar al-Assad of Syria may be right to claim U.S. president-elect Donald Trump as a "natural ally." Mr. al-Assad's fortunes certainly depend on Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin appear to have a rapport, even if it is largely based on a shared taste for bullying and bluster.
Mr. Trump likes to present himself as blunt, no-nonsense and straightforward. On Syria, he recently said to the Wall Street Journal, with characteristically jumbled prose and logic, "My attitude was you're fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS."
To the president-elect, the so-called Islamic State is radical evil in the Middle East. The Assad dynasty's war crimes, massive destruction of Aleppo and towns, and its use of chemical weapons makes Mr. Assad a piker compared with ISIS, in Mr. Trump's eyes. What's more, a friend of Mr. Putin's appears to be a friend of his.
Thanks to Moscow's newfound soulmate from Fifth Avenue, Russia's Syrian client is in a strong position. Mr. Putin has no scruples about bombing Syrian opposition groups. And the subtleties of moderate and not-so-moderate Islamic militias and factions do not appear to interest the U.S. president-elect.
The danger is that, in victory, the Assad family's savage repression of Syria's Arab Spring will be repeated, and a terrible punitive campaign could easily ensue.
Will Mr. Putin restrain Mr. Assad? Without external incentives, it's doubtful. That means the U.S. and its allies must do their best to restrain Russia, and Mr. Assad. The city of Aleppo, in particular, needs relief from war, and some hope of reconstruction.
President Barack Obama has a fair understanding of these matters, but he's now a lame duck. President-elect Trump seems to be fixated on Daesh and on the impending fall of its capital, Raqqa, as well as the liberation of Mosul. But the Assad regime, which looks like the Syrian civil war's victory, is the looming threat. Averting another humanitarian catastrophe in Syria may depend on whether the president-elect sees that defeating IS is an end – not the end.