Trump shifts on Syria after chemical attack
President Trump hinted at a change in U.S. policy toward Syria’s civil war this week after he accused the regime of Bashar al-Assad of crossing “many, many lines” by killing dozens of civilians in a chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town. Survivors said residents of Khan Sheikhoun began choking and foaming at the mouth not long after suspected government warplanes had roared overhead and dropped several bombs—which experts believe could have carried the toxic nerve agent sarin. At least 72 civilians died in the attack, Syrian activists said; videos from the scene showed volunteer medics piling up the bodies of lifeless children. Trump called the attack an “affront to humanity” and said that, following the atrocity, “my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”
Before the gas attack, administration officials had repeatedly said they would not continue President Obama’s policy of pushing for Assad’s removal. The dictator’s fate, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week, “will be decided by the Syrian people.” Trump has not detailed his new policy toward Assad, but did criticize former President Obama for failing to use military force following a similar attack in 2013, a year after declaring that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would “cross a red line.” “That set us back a long ways,” said Trump, who in 2013 tweeted that Obama should “not attack Syria—if you do very bad things will happen.”
What the columnists said
It’s true that Obama “bears responsibility for the horror in Syria,” said Jonathan Tobin in NationalReview.com. U.S. inaction allowed Assad to gain the upper hand in the country’s six-year-old civil war with the help of his allies Russia and Iran, and left ISIS looking like the only defender of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. But this is Trump’s mess now. And if he doesn’t abandon his dream of closer relations with a Moscow that enables Assad, he’ll find himself complicit “in one of the great human rights catastrophes of the 21st century.”
Trump “is discovering that every big problem he faces is like Obamacare,” said Thomas Friedman in The New York Times. “If there were a good, easy solution it would have been found already.” Should the U.S. focus solely on ISIS in Syria, Assad will keep trying to restore his control over the whole country, which “will mean endless massacres.” A negotiated power-sharing deal between Assad and the rebels is impossible, because there’s no trust. The least bad solution is to partition the country, but such a plan would require hundreds of thousands of international peacekeepers.
This latest gas attack is a threat to “the very heart of foundational international norms,” said Thanassis Cambanis in TheAtlantic.com. Yet nobody should be surprised if Trump does nothing but issue empty expressions of outrage. The president has so far practiced an “unabashedly transactional foreign policy”—look at his “warm words” for brutal Egyptian dictator Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi during his Washington visit this week. But if the U.S. no longer responds forcefully to acts of barbarity, more tyrants will feel free to slaughter innocents. “Today, Syrians suffer. Tomorrow, the world.”