Author: MICHAEL WILNER
Posted on April 6, 2017
WASHINGTON — In a dramatic reversal of American policy in Syria and the arc of the brutal war there, US President Donald Trump told members of Congress on Thursday he is weighing military options against its embattled leader, Bashar Assad, for his use of chemical weapons against innocent children.
Trump told members he has not yet resolved to order the strike, several of their aides confirmed to The Jerusalem Post. But the president has asked Secretary of Defense James Mattis to present him with a series of options that put Assad regime assets in the Pentagon’s crosshairs.
Should he choose to proceed, Trump would be ordering the first intentional strike against the government there since a revolution against Assad’s leadership first broke out in 2011.
He would not only be reversing former president Barack Obama’s longstanding policy against direct involvement in the Syrian conflict, but his own positions held both as a private citizen and a candidate for president. Trump long cautioned against getting mired in the war there, and warned Obama against targeting Assad after he used chemical weapons in 2013 to kill 1,400 civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
Obama never came closer to striking Assad than at that time, sending five destroyers and an aircraft carrier into position along the Syrian coast. But he ultimately stood down after Russia offered to broker a deal that would rid Assad of the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the Middle East.
An attack on Tuesday in Idlib province suggests that agreement has not fully held. A nerve agent, found to be sarin gas from initial autopsy reports, killed at least 74 people and injured over 550 more.
Britain, France, Germany and the US believe “without a doubt” the attack was conducted from the air by the Assad regime, placing Western powers in a similar dilemma to that which challenged them four years ago. And now as president, Trump says he feels the weight of responsibility and the necessity to act.
“My attitude toward Syria and Assad had changed,” Trump said on Wednesday, standing alongside King Abdullah II of Jordan in the White House rose garden. “It crossed a lot of lines for me.”
Trump said he would not preview any potential US military action.
“It is now my responsibility,” Trump added. “These heinous acts by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.”
The Pentagon has sat on war plans for several years and will be able to present Trump with a range of options. Trump may choose to strike Assad punitively in a short, days-long operation, or in a more sustained campaign against the government’s infrastructure.
Alternatively, the president may choose to use this crisis as an opportunity to change the course of the war, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Arizona) and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) said in a joint statement.
“The United States should lead an international coalition to ground Assad’s air force,” McCain said in a statement. “This capability provides Assad a strategic advantage in his brutal slaughter of innocent civilians, both through the use of chemical weapons as well as barrel bombs, which kill far more men, women and children on a daily basis.”
“Ultimately, the grounding of Assad’s air force can and should be part of a new comprehensive strategy to end the conflict in Syria,” they added.
The Pentagon faces a challenge in Syria that it did not face in 2013: The permanent presence of Russia, which has since 2015 permeated Assad’s military apparatus throughout the country. Any operation against Assad would bring Washington in direct confrontation with Moscow and might put Russian assets and personnel at risk.
Thus Trump’s decision to strike Assad has an additionally complexing political dimension, as he chooses whether to challenge Russia amid an FBI investigation into whether his associates colluded with Moscow as it interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Trump furthermore campaigned on a platform of collaborating with Russia in Syria against Islamic State, at the expense of Syria’s core rebellion against Assad’s rule.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, encouraged Trump on Thursday to go forward with a strike and committed to assist any US operation.
“I thank him, but it should not remain unfulfilled,” Erdogan told local Turkish television, when asked to comment on Trump’s potential military plans.
Several Democratic senators appear ready to support the president should he choose to act militarily, including Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Ben Cardin of Maryland.
“What remains to be seen is whether there will be strong US leadership and policy to hold Assad accountable,” said Cardin, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Later this month we will commemorate Yom HaShoah. We say never again, but it’s time we meant it, and it starts with holding Assad accountable.”