Trump warns Russia, Syria over deadly gas attack
Amid international uproar over a deadly chemical-weapons attack in Syria, President Trump this week announced that he was preparing to hit the country’s regime with missile strikes, and issued a rare rebuke to Moscow for backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice, new, and ‘smart,’” the president tweeted, after Russian officials said their forces would shoot down any incoming missiles. “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal.” Trump canceled a planned trip to Peru for the Summit of the Americas so he could oversee the U.S. response to the attack. Witnesses said at least 70 people were killed and hundreds injured after Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs filled with poison gas on the rebel-held enclave of Douma, a suburb of Damascus. Photos and videos of the aftermath show lifeless victims, including many women and children, with foaming mouths, blue lips, and open eyes. “President Putin, Russia, and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad,” Trump tweeted. “Big price to pay.” France and the U.K. said they would support U.S. military action.
The attack came almost a year after the Assad regime killed more than 90 people in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun with the nerve gas sarin. The U.S. fired 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in response, but Trump was reportedly weighing a more robust strike this time. “Last year was about sending a signal,” said retired U.S. Adm. James Stavridis. “This year it’s about destroying actual Syrian capability.” Russia, which vetoed a U.S.-crafted United Nations Security Council resolution to investigate the Douma attack, insisted there was no evidence of chemical-weapons use. A Kremlin spokesman warned that U.S. military action “could significantly destabilize the already fragile situation in the region.”
Days before the latest chemical-weapons attack, Trump ordered his national security team to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops deployed in Syria by the fall. The president reportedly wanted the pullout to be immediate, but abandoned the plan in the face of unanimous opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the intelligence community.
What the editorials said
It’s heartening to see Trump make a “rare criticism” of Putin, said the Los Angeles Times. But he has to be careful of mission creep in Syria. The objective should be to “punish Assad for violating an international norm,” not to oust the dictator or interfere further in the country’s bloody seven-year civil war. The U.S. should provide a proportional response to the attack, and keep our troops in the country only long enough to eliminate any remaining ISIS militants—not a day longer.
Abandoning Syria is a terrible idea, said the New York Post. It would allow Assad’s Iranian sponsors to “gain control of the entire Northern Middle East”—from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq—and Turkey to pursue its “insane vendetta” against the Syrian Kurdish forces that helped us beat ISIS. Rather than just bomb a few airfields in response to Douma, Trump should also declare a no-fly zone over eastern Syria. That would check Iran’s ambitions, “create a refuge for those saved from ISIS and Assad,” and give the U.S. a say in determining the fate of the country.
What the columnists said
Trump essentially has “three bad options” on Syria, said Max Fisher in The New York Times. Limited strikes won’t change Assad’s calculus in the long term, because they don’t threaten his “personal and national survival.” Arming and protecting anti-government rebels will merely encourage Moscow and Tehran to “escalate in turn.” And a full-scale intervention could trigger a direct military confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia.
“It’s time to give Trump some credit on Russia,” said Matt Lewis in TheDailyBeast.com. His much-needed rebuke of Putin came only days after his administration imposed punishing new sanctions on Putin-allied Russian oligarchs and their businesses—penalties that sent the Russian stock market crashing. The president appears to have finally realized that in the context of Syria, his “soft attitude toward Russia” is incompatible with his “hostility to Iran,” said Jonathan Tobin in NationalReview.com. The big question now is whether he is “prepared to abandon” his long-held belief that he can foster better relations with Putin.
Don’t count on it, said Chris Cillizza in CNN.com. An hour after Trump’s “Get ready Russia” tweet, the president lamented that there was “no reason” for the poor relationship between the U.S. and Russia and that all countries should “work together.” It’s also worth remembering that Trump repeatedly lambasted President Obama for announcing military strategies in advance—yet here he is “previewing actual missile launches.” The hypocrisy is staggering.
This is the problem with Trump’s foreign policy, said Zack Beauchamp in Vox.com—it’s completely “incoherent.” One moment he boasts about his victory over ISIS, the next he orders U.S. troops out of Syria before the anti-ISIS operation is complete. He’s made similarly contradictory moves on almost every major global issue: North Korea, Russia, Chinese trade. As a result, no one knows when to take the president’s words seriously, and when to dismiss them as bluster. That could lead to “a very serious mess—in Syria or elsewhere.”
The delayed decision on retaliatory measures has given Russia and Syria plenty of time to prepare, said Sune Engel Rasmussen in The Wall Street Journal. The Syrian military has “put its air defense systems on high alert,” and moved some fighter jets away from air bases near Damascus—which are thought to be high on the Pentagon’s target list—and stationed them at a Russian-operated air base. Iranian troops and other allied militias have also been redeployed around the country. Meanwhile the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is sending a fact-finding mission to Douma, with the Syrian government’s permission. But U.S. officials fear that essential evidence has likely already “been tampered with.”
Cover illustration by Fred Harper.
Cover photos from AP, Alamy, AP