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Trump’s Circuitous Route to Striking Syria

The sequence how it came about

President Trump was genuinely horrified at what can only been assumed was the latest atrocity of the murderous madman who is still the president of Syria.

"These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated…That attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me.

When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal, and people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red lines, many, many lines.

And I will tell you, it’s already happened, that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much."

A fair question is what did Donald Trump think of the Syrian president before, while he was destroying the nation's largest city, deliberately bombing every hospital and slaughtering his own people with barrel bombs? That his response to Syria was a ban to to block desperate refugees from entry into this country "indefinitely" says that he was entirely indifferent to their plight. Perhaps that will now change.


Revealingly, just days before, Trump had abandoned the Obama administration policy of the last five years that, however weakly, sought Bashar al-Assad's removal from power. "With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept", Sean Spicer announced at the end of March. Advocacy of Assad's removal was no longer "a fundamental option".

“The United States has profound priorities in Syria and Iraq, and we’ve made it clear that counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of ISIS, is foremost among those priorities".

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed the new policy. Asked by a reporter, "About President Assad, should he stay or should he go?", Tillerson answered, "I think the status in the longer term of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people" — a people that, with some half million dead and five million refugees is in no way able to decide in an election that will never take place. So his meaning was baffling.

How did those signals not turn Obama's red line into Trump's green light, telling Assad that from the U.S. standpoint, he was free to do as he wished without repercussion?

Yet Trump, who has an aversion to accepting blame, went out of his way to make the gas attack the result of Obama's failure to act in the Syrian civil war, much as he had tried to make the costly raid in Yemen Obama's plan gone wrong. After a perfectly apt renouncement of the attack, Trump attacked the former president:

“These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a 'red line' against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing".

It is just such weakness and irresolution that Trump had repeatedly advised "very foolish leader" Obama to follow in an extensive series of tweets in September, 2013, when the Obama administration was considering military action against the Assad regime after a horrific sarin gas attack two weeks earlier in August, and about a year after Obama had drawn his figurative red line. Trump had then repeatedly stressed to Obama that he do nothing. "Syria is NOT our problem", he wrote. Two of the tweets expose Trump's attitude and transactional view of foreign policy, devoid of concern for a brutalized people:

In now faulting Obama for not doing what he then urged not be done, Trump was either unaware that his tweets live on for years and that he'd be caught out, or is confident that his followers look no further than what he says today. There were many more such tweets, 16 of them dredged up at Mother Jones

Obama's failure to act in Syria early on, to at least identify a rebel group to support with supplies and weapons, as well as his neglect of the growing North Korean problem for eight years (as did his predecessor for another eight), are viewed as Barack Obama's most serious foreign policy failures. When his red line was actually crossed, he stepped back from it. That's the weakness that Trump would have heard repeated endlessly on Fox News, except that those on the right had no taste to embark on another war, preferring the easier course of talking tough. If Obama was reluctant, as accused, partly he was concerned for having no right to attack another country. That right belonged to Congress. The Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) adopted moments after 9/11 restricted military action only against those elements such as al Qaeda that had been involved in the attacks.

Obama wanted to get Congress to revise the AUMF to give him the latitude to take action in Syria. Congress wouldn't touch it. He would have had to go it alone — one man declaring war backed by no one, and with 63% of Americans against in agreement with Trump's tweets.

That is when Putin extracted a pledge by Assad to remove Syria’s entire stock of chemical weapons. Obama was “rescued in humiliating fashion”, but it was the better solution.

the difference a day makes

Mr. Trump had nowhere mentioned the Russians in his initial comment or at his Rose Garden news conference with King Abdullah of Jordan alongside, and he avoided any red line of his own in response to a reporter, saying,

"Militarily I don't like to say where I'm going or what I'm doing. I'm not saying I'm doing anything, one way or the other".

Amb. Nikki Haley at the U.N.

Russia refuses to acknowledge that Assad had committed the massacre with the preposterous claim that Syrian aircraft must have hit a rebel store of chemical weapons.

That left it to Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley to show the nation's mettle at an emergency meeting of the Security Council. She held up gruesome photos of the victims and warned:

When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action".

And it was she who attacked Russia in no uncertain terms:

"They chose to close their eyes to the barbarians. They defied the conscience of the world. How many more children have to die before Russia cares? If Russia had been fulfilling its responsibilities there would not even be any chemical weapons left for the Syrian regime to use."

But a day later, there was much astir and the strong hint of action. Asked now about Assad, Tillerson replied, "There is no role for Assad in governing Syria and Russia should reconsider its support of him". Asked if the U.S. is organizing a coalition to remove the Syrian leader, he answered, "Those steps are underway".

On Air Force One en route to meet with China President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, Trump said:

I think what Assad did is terrible. I think what happened in Syria is one of the truly egregious crimes…and it shouldn't be allowed to happen...is a disgrace to humanity and he's there and I guess he's running things, so something should happen".

Defense Secretary James Mattis had also gone to Florida to discuss military options, with speculation running between cruise missiles aimed at Assad's chemical weapons capability, to risking American pilots against Russia-installed surface-to-air missile batteries to take out Syria's air force, with the risk of hitting Russian planes and maintenance crews on the ground. NBC's Richard Engel, who said he had been talking to military officials, said "this could develop very quickly, perhaps even in the next several hours".

He was right. Within two hours of that prediction, the cruise missiles flew. Commentators left and right, and most likely the American people at large, praised Trump for finally doing something against the Syrian dictator after Obama idly watched the carnage for five years.

1 Comment for “Trump’s Circuitous Route to Striking Syria”

  1. Timely reporting, pointing out the contradictions and erratic nature of the Trump presidency, especially in foreign policy. After making simplistic promises as a candidate, his decision to fire missiles at a Syrian airbase was motivated more by domestic political interests than by any definitive national security needs and contradicted his promises to use military force only when national interests were threatened. Unfortunately, despite not consulting Congress, leaders of both parties and the media are already on board, despite the risks and lack of any carefully thought out policy.

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