During a Wednesday press conference, President Trump gave some uncharacteristically harsh comments about Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. The president claimed Assad’s gas attack on Tuesday, which killed at least 74 people, “had a big impact on me,” and that “it’s very possible…that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed.”
This paired well with tough talk from his ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, who gave an impassioned speech at the UN on Wednesday asking "how many more children have to die before Russia cares?” — a clear dig at Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s primary overseas backer (and an autocrat Trump openly admires).
"It crossed a lot of lines for me," Trump told reporters at the White House at the White House. "When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines."
But Trump’s harsh condemnation of Assad came with an important caveat: a new dig at President Barack Obama, who Trump blamed for setting the stage for the new attack by failing to use force against Assad after the Syrian dictator first used chemical weapons in 2013.
"I think the Obama administration had a great opportunity to solve this crisis a long time ago when he said the red line in the sand," Trump said at the White House. "And when he didn't cross that line after making the threat, I think that set us back a long ways, not only in Syria, but in many other parts of the world, because it was a blank threat. I think it was something that was not one of our better days as a country."
The comment highlighted the difficult and perhaps untenable line Trump is trying to tread as he steps up his condemnations of Assad while ignoring the fact that his administration doesn’t seem ready to do more than Obama had done -- and that he, before joining the 2016 race, had actually made clear that he believed using force in Syria would be a mistake.
For one thing, Trump’s policy towards Syria has thus far failed to include any new diplomatic or military measures against the Assad regime. On March 30, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to dismiss the longtime US goal of seeing Assad leave power, saying “I think the longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” Trump did not call for Assad to step down on Wednesday, suggesting Tillerson’s policy stands even despite the president’s stated horror at the chemical attack.
Moreover, the harsh line from the Trump team seems to imply that President Trump would have attacked Syria after Assad’s similar chemical attack 2013. That ignores the fact that at the time, Trump demanded that Obama back down from his “red line” — and stay the hell out of Syria:
AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA - IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2013
And did so again:
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.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2013
If Obama attacks Syria and innocent civilians are hurt and killed, he and the U.S. will look very bad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2013
And over and over again:
For all of those fools that want to attack Syria, the U.S.has lost the vital element of surprise-so stupid-could be a disaster!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 4, 2013
Russia is sending a fleet of ships to the Mediterranean. Obama’s war in Syria has the potential to widen into a worldwide conflict.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2013
The Arab League stated that it wants nothing to do with an attack on Syria, but they want us to attack.Are our leaders insane or just stupid— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 2, 2013
What I am saying is stay out of Syria.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 4, 2013
The issue here isn’t just hypocrisy.
Trump’s actual policy on Syria thus far has been a more honest expression of Obama’s, which was to effectively take no real measure to oust Assad despite continuing to insist that he needed to leave power.
Beyond failing to enforce his red line, my colleague Jennifer Williams noted that Obama had personally vetoed the advice of his entire national security team in 2012 and opted not to arm the moderate Syrian rebels when they were scoring significant battlefield wins against Assad.
Still, Obama was at least prepared to use the moral authority of his office to speak out against Assad’s human rights violations and willingness to slaughter hundreds of thousands of his own people. Trump’s actual policy and response to the 2013 chemical weapons attack suggests that, despite his vague expressions of horror in Wednesday’s presser, he’s not actually interested in taking this kind moral stand.
The paradox of America’s Syria policy
Ever since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, it has been one of the hardest foreign policy problems the United States has faced — one that has deeply divided civilian policymakers, senior US military officials, and foreign policy experts from both parties.
On the one hand, failing to directly intervene with US firepower has allowed Assad to carry out massacres with impunity and to send the conflict’s death toll up to at least 470,000. On the other, there is no guarantee that a US intervention would have stopped the slaughter. And as we saw after the Iraq War, intervention could have created a dangerous vacuum even if it succeeded in toppling Assad.
Obama personally decided that the former was the safer bet, clearly committing to non-intervention after the 2013 “red line” debacle. This is a defensible choice, albeit one with a clear trade-off: The Syrian civil war continued unabated; more people have died; and the Assad regime, with direct Russian military aid, has steadily reconquered large swaths of the country.
Yet team Obama continued insisting that Assad needed to give up power even after it ruled out any serious effort to bring that about.
The result was a series of angry and impassioned statements from high-level Obama staffers every time there was a mass killing in Syria, statements that rang increasingly hollow as the administration went on. The comments from Obama’s UN ambassador, Samantha Power, sound virtually identical to the ones that Ambassador Haley gave on Wednesday. The Obama team wanted to show that they cared about the slaughter of Syrian civilians on an emotional level, even though they were unwilling to do much about it in concrete policy terms.
Theoretically, this was supposed to maintain the sense that the United States and the international community were committed to opposing human rights violations — to stigmatize Assad and his backers in the international realm even if intervention in Syria proper was ruled out.
When Trump took office, it seemed like this might change. Trump, given his past statements, clearly did not care about Syria on a humanitarian level. During the campaign, he had talked about partnering with Russia to fight ISIS in the country — even though Russian airstrikes had overwhelmingly targeted rebels and Syrian civilians rather than ISIS.
So his policy did shift in one clear direction: He made the subtext of Obama’s policy, that Assad would likely stay in power, into text. This wasn’t just Tillerson’s line: Ambassador Haley said, back in March, that “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” On Tuesday, after the attack, Press Secretary Sean Spicer echoed that: “We would look like, to some degree, rather silly not acknowledging the political realities that exist in Syria.”
This has drawn attacks from some Republicans. Sen. Marco Rubio blamed the chemical attack on Tillerson’s comments.
“It's concerning that the secretary of state, 72 hours ago or a week ago, last Friday, said that the future's up to the people in Syria on what happens with Assad. In essence almost nodding to the idea that Assad was gonna get to stay in some capacity," Rubio said on Wednesday. "I don't think it's a coincidence that a few days later we see this.”
Regardless of whether you think Rubio is right, the clear consequence of this new policy is that they could no longer try to stigmatize Assad in the way the Obama team tried to. Once you give up the game, and admit you don’t really care if Assad stays or goes, it becomes harder to credibly condemn egregious acts like the new chemical weapons strike.
That’s why all of the tough talk we’re seeing from the Trump team is likely more of a smokescreen than anything else. By making vague noises that like they’ll be more aggressive than the last administration, but actually implementing a pro-Assad policy shift, they’re evading the hard choices that define presidencies, and betraying United States’ nominal role as a defender of human rights.
Trump may be right that Assad isn’t going anywhere. But that doesn't make his response to this chemical attack any less troubling.