Last week, the Trump administration’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, announced that America’s priority in Syria is “no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also expressed openness to the preservation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, saying that the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
This position was consistent with Trump’s years-long public stance on the subject. Shortly after Assad’s government killed 1,400 Syrians with sarin and VX gas, the mogul implored Obama to save his “powder.”
Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump touted his opposition to regime change in Syria. At the second debate, the Republican nominee boiled his thoughts on the Syrian civil war down to a single sentence: “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS.”
But apparently, when Trump and his top aides took these positions, they were unaware that Bashar al-Assad is war criminal who routinely butchers his own people.
On Tuesday, war planes dropped toxic gas on a rebel-held city in northern Syria, killing 70 people, according to witness accounts. The Syrian opposition does not have war planes. The Syrian government does.
On Thursday, Trump declared that “something should happen” in response to Assad’s apparent human rights violation. Initially, many observers assumed that this would mean, at most, a few limited strikes, aimed at punishing the regime for its use of chemic weapons – and/or putting on a show of toughness for American cable news viewers – but not at changing the outcome of the Syrian civil war.
After all, if the administration believed that regime change in Syria would do more harm than good last week – when Assad had already murdered thousands of civilians – why would the slaughter of 70 more change that basic strategic judgement?
And yet, according to The Intercept, the Trump administration is now at least considering making a 180-degree turn in its Syria policy:
The Pentagon has developed plans for an airstrike against Syrian government targets in response to this week’s apparent chemical attack by Syrian government forces, according to two U.S. military officials.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis will present the proposals to Donald Trump later today at the president’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. One of the proposals drawn up is a “saturation strike” using dozens of cruise missiles designed to hit Syrian military targets —including military air fields — in an effort to limit future Syrian Air Force attacks on rebel positions, according to the two U.S. military officials.
…According to both U.S. military officials, the current proposal would likely result in Russian military deaths and mark a drastic escalation of U.S. force in Syria… The Bashar al-Assad government placed many of its air defense systems in civilian areas, putting Syrian civilians at risk, according to the U.S. military and intelligence sources.
Four days ago, the White House believed that removing Assad should not be a priority of the American government. Now, it is weighing a plan to bring the United States into direct military confrontation with a nuclear weapons state, so as to limit the Syrian government’s capacity to attack rebel positions.
Whatever one’s view of this issue, it is difficult to see how the events of this week could justify a change of policy this drastic. And if the change isn’t motivated by new facts, then we may be about to go to war because the president sees such a move as the right plot twist for this episode of his reality show.