Just last week, top aides to President Donald Trump declared that ousting Bashar Assad from power is no longer a priority for the United States, calling the Syrian strongman’s continued rule a “political reality” that needs to be accepted.
Now, reports of a deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria have brought home another reality: priority or not, Assad still poses a political problem for Trump, and it’s one that won’t simply vanish by blaming former President Barack Obama.
As accounts filtered in Tuesday of dozens dead from the gassing, Trump slammed Assad, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson demanded that Russia and Iran, Assad’s primary backers, rein him in. But there was no solid indication that the U.S. would do anything substantial to retaliate aside from escalating its rhetoric.
Republicans, Democrats and even some foreign leaders blasted the Trump team for words and actions they said had emboldened Assad. Some critics also asked whether, by publicly stating it will accept Assad’s rule, the White House had given away a critical piece of leverage in the struggling international effort to bring peace to Syria.
“Bashar Assad and his friends, that is, his friends, the Russians, take note of what Americans say,” GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona told CNN. “I’m sure they are encouraged to know the United States is withdrawing and seeking some kind of a new arrangement with the Russians. And it is another disgraceful chapter in American history, and it was predictable.”
Wa’el Alzayat, a former senior policy adviser on Iraq and Syria in the Obama administration, said public assurances that Assad could keep power were exactly what the Syrian regime, the Russians and the Iranians “have been seeking for years.”
“It’s unfortunate that we declared this publicly,” Alzayat said. “Why do that when we could have been gaining some concessions from them in return for Assad staying?”
The latest chemical weapons attack, if confirmed, would be one of the deadliest such attacks of the six-year-long Syrian civil war.
The toxic gas was delivered, apparently by a government airstrike, in Idlib province, killing dozens including children. According to media reports, an airstrike hit a clinic treating some of the victims a few hours later. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which has a working relationship with the United Nations, said it is trying to gather details about the attacks. There are strong suspicions sarin gas was used.
In a statement, Trump called the attacks “reprehensible” but then quickly pivoted to blaming Obama. “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” the president said.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted the administration wasn’t sending mixed messages on Assad’s future, but rather realistic ones. “There is not a fundamental option of regime change as there has been in the past,” Spicer said, though it wasn’t clear exactly to when he was referring.
At the same time, Spicer held out the possibility the U.S., in concert with allies, could take some unspecified “action” in response to the chemical attack, even as he said that Trump won’t “telegraph what we’re going to do.”
But with Russia holding a veto at the U.N. Security Council, and little appetite in the United States for militarily intervening in the fight between Assad and rebels trying to oust him, it’s not clear what will be done.
“Assad will get away with murder as he has been doing since March 2011,” predicted Randa Slim, a Syria expert with the Middle East Institute.
Foreign policy analysts echoed Spicer’s criticism of Obama, noting that the former president failed to take military action against Assad even after the Syrian leader violated the U.S. president’s 2012 “red line” by using chemical weapons. Trump himself taunted Obama over the episode, though he also tweeted that the former president shouldn’t bomb Syria.
But even Obama critics acknowledged that the previous administration helped orchestrate a 2013 deal to remove much of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile – and, unlike the Trump team, Obama never publicly abandoned demands that Assad relinquish power.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said last Thursday that America’s “priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” Tillerson, at a separate event, said, “I think the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
The following day, Spicer said that “with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.” He added that defeating the Islamic State terrorist group is a more important priority than getting rid of Assad, which, again, was also effectively the case for the Obama administration.
Elliott Abrams, who oversaw U.S. Middle East policy under President George W. Bush, suggested that, politically speaking, Trump still has some room to maneuver in its response to the latest chemical weapons strike.
“The excuse the Trump administration has for inaction is that it is new, and this is the first chemical attack since January 20th,” the day Trump took office, Abrams wrote in an email. “At the very least there should be a warning to Assad that this is unacceptable and that there will be an American military reaction if it happens again.”
Trump administration officials have made it clear they consider Assad a butcher responsible for many of the estimated half-million deaths in the Syrian war. And Haley has in the past spoken out against Russia’s refusal to allow the United Nations to punish Syria over recent chemical weapons attacks, many of which involved chlorine gas.
In a rare public statement, Tillerson took on Russia as well as Iran, saying that they “should have no illusions about Assad or his intentions.”
“We call upon Russia and Iran, yet again, to exercise their influence over the Syrian regime and to guarantee that this sort of horrific attack never happens again,” the secretary of state said. “As the self-proclaimed guarantors to the ceasefire negotiated in Astana, Russia and Iran also bear great moral responsibility for these deaths.”
Such tough rhetoric largely echoes that of the Obama administration, which nonetheless found itself unable to move either the Kremlin or Tehran to sideline the Syrian autocrat, whom those countries consider a key ally.
The Trump administration’s apparent willingness to accept Assad’s continued rule has fed suspicions that Trump is searching for ways to accommodate Russia, a sensitive subject in Washington. U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump, and the FBI is looking into Trump campaign aides’ contacts with Russians. The White House has denied wrongdoing and the president has questioned the validity of the intelligence assessments.
The White House has indicated that it wants to work with Russia to help eliminate the Islamic State, but many former officials and analysts say that’s a fool’s errand, especially if the ongoing fight against the terrorist group provides a distraction for the U.S. that keeps it off Assad’s back. Experts on the region say Assad’s fight against various rebels trying to overthrow him has helped fuel the Islamic State’s existence.
The Trump administration’s stance on Assad also poses a challenge on another front: It could embolden the Iranians while disheartening America’s Arab allies who view Tehran as a threat to their power. The shift in dynamics could also affect U.S. relationships with other partners, many of whom despise Assad and have long called for his ouster, but who also are well aware of the realities on the ground.
Reacting to the reports of the chemical attack, British Prime Minister Theresa May said: “I’m very clear that there can be no future for Assad in a stable Syria which is representative of all the Syrian people, and I call on all the third parties involved to ensure that we have a transition away from Assad.”
But her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, took a slightly less definitive approach, saying, “It is unbelievable to think that in the long term, Bashar Assad can play a part in the future of Syria.” Phrases such as “long-term” are often pointed to by Syria experts as indicating Western leaders are willing to let Assad hang on for a while.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, meanwhile, used Twitter to make a veiled jab at the Trump team’s recently stated views.
“Those saying Syrian people will decide Assad’s future: no people will remain if attacks continue,” Çavuşoğlu wrote.
Louis Nelson and Matthew Nussbaum contributed to this story.
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