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The big Republican shift on Syria, in one presidential debate

What key Republicans said about Syria in a 2015 primary debate, and how they’re responding now.

Republicans arrive on stage at the primary debate in Simi Valley, California on September 16, 2015.
Photo by Robyn Beck/Getty Images

Republicans in Congress are lining up to support President Donald Trump’s decision Thursday night to direct the US military to launch a series of cruise-missile strikes against Syrian targets.

But when asked about this very issue in a 2015 primary debate, many of the same Republicans now praising Trump had conflicting views on the subject.

In the debate, they were asked about their views on Syrian intervention following Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces launching sarin gas — a deadly chemical considered a weapon of mass destruction — into the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013. The death toll was estimated to be somewhere between 300 and 1,300 people.

At that point in 2013, President Barack Obama had been escalating his rhetoric about the Syrian civil war, going so far as to establish a so-called “red line” implying that if Assad used chemical weapons, the US military would respond. But after the Ghouta attack, rather than act unilaterally, Obama instead implored Congress to authorize military force in Syria, a move many saw as cop-out intentionally meant to fail. Indeed, most Republicans opposed the resolution.

Looking back on the 2015 debate, you can see how some positions have changed now that a Republican — even if it is Donald Trump — occupies the White House.

Key Republicans clashed over how to respond to the situation in Syria during the primary

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who opposed giving President Obama authorization to strike Syria in 2013, said in the debate that he did so because he didn’t want to authorize a one-off strike:

[L]et's remember what the president said. He said the attack he would conduct would be a pinprick. Well, the United States military was not build to conduct pinprick attacks.

If the United States military is going to be engaged by a commander in chief, it should only be engaged in an endeavor to win. And we're not going to authorize use of force if you're not put in a position where they can win.

And quite frankly, people don't trust this president as commander in chief because of that.

Thursday night, however, Rubio seemed to have changed his tune, releasing a statement in praise of Trump’s single Syrian strike:

I salute the bravery and skill of the men and women of our Armed Forces who conducted this mission. Tonight's strike against the Assad regime’s Shayrat Air Base will hopefully diminish his capacity to commit atrocities against innocent civilians. By acting decisively against the very facility from which Assad launched his murderous chemical weapons attack, President Trump has made it clear to Assad and those who empower him that the days of committing war crimes with impunity are over. What must follow is a real and comprehensive strategy to ensure that Assad is no longer a threat to his people and to U.S. security, and that Russia no longer has free reign to support his regime.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who opposed the 2013 resolution, said in the 2015 debate that did so because Obama failed to adequately answer questions about steps after the proposed strikes to prevent chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands:

The No. 1 test for use of military force should be the vital national security interest of the United States. The reason why I opposed President Obama bombing Syria is because he couldn't answer the question, what do you do if chemical weapons end up in the hands of radical Islamic terrorists like al-Nusra, like Al Qaida, like ISIS?

Now, Cruz said Trump should seek congressional authorization, though didn’t indicate whether he’d support it. (Though he’s taken a decidedly friendlier attitude toward Trump of late):

Any military action in Syria must be justified as protecting the vital national security interests of America — including decisive action to prevent chemical weapons from falling into the hands of radical Islamic terrorists — and I look forward to our Commander-in-Chief making the case to Congress and the American people how we should do so in the days ahead

Only Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) maintained consistency across the years, opposing military intervention in 2013, 2015, and now. In the Republican debate, he said:

Had we bombed Assad at the time, like President Obama wanted, and like Hillary Clinton wanted, and many Republicans wanted, I think ISIS would be in Damascus today. I think ISIS would be in charge of Syria had we bombed Assad.

Sometimes both sides of the civil war are evil, and sometimes intervention sometimes makes us less safe. This is real the debate we have to have in the Middle East.

On Thursday night, he maintained his anti-interventionist tune:

President Donald Trump has been all over the map when it comes to Syria

After the deadly chemical attack in 2013, the president opposed any intervention whatsoever:

Yet in the 2015 debate, Trump said Obama should’ve struck Syria in 2013:

Had he crossed the line and really gone in with force, done something to Assad — if he had gone in with tremendous force, you wouldn't have millions of people displaced all over the world.

He went on to blame the Republican senators who voted against giving Obama authorization to strike, saying they had some “responsibility” for the refugee crisis that emerged in the nation.

In a speech Thursday night, Trump justified his decision to strike:

Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.