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.”
On Tuesday morning, activist groups alleged that the Assad government had released poisonous gas above the rebel-held city of Khan Shaykhun, killing as many as 100 people, including many children.
Hours later, Sean Spicer blamed the attack on the Obama administration’s refusal to stand up to the Assad regime.
“Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world,” the White House press secretary told reporters. “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.”
“President (Barack) Obama said in 2012 he would establish a red line against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing,” Spicer continued. “The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable act.”
It’s a bit odd for the White House to condemn Obama for weakness and irresolution toward a foreign dictator — while maintaining its own resolution not to remove that dictator from power.
Still, Spicer’s position isn’t entirely incoherent.
In 2013, the Assad regime released sarin gas, an odorless nerve agent, in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, according to the United States, the Arab League, and the European Union (the Russian and Syrian governments dispute this). The attack killed hundreds of civilians. President Obama had previously suggested that the use of chemical weapons by the regime would trigger U.S. intervention. But he refused to intervene without first securing congressional approval (likely knowing that such approval would not be provided). Instead, the United States and Russia brokered an agreement requiring Assad to dispose of his reserves of sarin gas.
Early reports suggest that the gas deployed in Tuesday’s attack may have been sarin. If this is true, and if the attack was, in fact, committed by the Assad regime — points that have yet to be confirmed — then one could reasonably argue that the 2013 deal has proven to be a failure.
Tuesday’s report marked the third claim of a chemical attack in Syria in a little over a week. The previous two issued from Hama province, in an area not too far from Khan Shaykhun.
On Wednesday morning, the U.N. Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on the suspected attack.