Author : NIALL STANAGE
Posted : 04/05/17
President Trump indicated an abrupt change in his administration’s policy toward Syria on Wednesday — but left questions about specifics hanging in the air.
Trump said that a chemical attack in Syria that killed dozens of people, including children, “crossed a lot of lines for me.”
The president also said, “it is very, very possible — and I will tell you it’s already happened — that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”
The administration had signaled as recently as last week that the ouster of the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, was no longer a priority. Trump’s comments suggest the removal of Assad is once again on the table.
But he did not say that explicitly, leaving Washington wondering what will come next.
The speed of the shift has been notable.
Speaking in Ankara, Turkey, last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the status of Assad “will be decided by the Syrian people.”
On the same day, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told a small group of journalists that “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”
When White House press secretary Sean Spicer was asked at a March 31 briefing about the legitimacy of Assad’s rule, he replied: “There is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now. We lost a lot of opportunity [during] the last administration with respect to Assad.”
Spicer added that the position stated by Haley and Tillerson “reflects the reality that it’s now up to the Syrian people.”
Tillerson’s comment came in for criticism even from some Republicans.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told a Florida radio station that he did not “think that it’s a coincidence that a few days later we see this,” referring to the attack.
According to the Associated Press, Rubio added: “Assad believes, and sadly he may be right, that he can gas his people with sarin, kill children, kill innocent civilians — people will complain, there’ll be a meeting at the U.N. Security Council, and then life will go on and he’ll stay in power.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a long-standing proponent of stronger action against Syria, told CNN on Tuesday — as news was breaking of the attack — that Tillerson’s original remark was “one of the more incredible statements I’ve ever heard.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) last week said that any de facto acceptance of Assad’s continuing in power would be “the biggest mistake since President Obama failed to act after drawing a red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons.”
Obama’s failure to enforce that red line was one of the most widely criticized actions of his tenure in the White House. Trump has lambasted it recently, including in a statement on Tuesday where he asserted that the latest attack was “a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.”
However, in a series of tweets in 2013, Trump had himself urged Obama not to attack Syria.
“The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.,” he wrote on September 5 of that year.
In his comments in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, however, Trump said of Obama, “when he didn’t cross that line after making the threat, I think that set us back a long ways.”
Trump also described the attack as “an affront to humanity” and said that “these heinous attacks by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.”
But if Trump really has changed his mind about Assad, and if he wishes to show strength where he believes Obama revealed weakness, it is not clear what the next steps will be.
Obama ultimately backed away from more aggressive action against Assad in part because of the risks of the United States getting sucked deeper into yet another Middle East conflict.
Around 400,000 people are estimated to have died in the war in Syria. From a political standpoint, a direct U.S. intervention would be complicated. Russia backs Assad, as does Iran. The forces fighting to overthrow him include the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other extremist enemies of the United States.
Still, comments from Haley at the U.N. on Wednesday underlined the sense that the Trump administration is changing course.
Holding up photographs of children who had been killed in the attack, Haley asked, “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”
Haley also held out the prospect that, absent U.N. action, the United States may be “compelled to take our own action.”
Washington and the wider world are now waiting to see what that action might be.
Pressed on the point by a reporter at the White House news conference, Trump argued that it was important to preserve the element of surprise against foes.
“I’m certainly not going to be telling you,” he added.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.