President Donald Trump, embroiled in his first major foreign policy crisis, hinted Thursday that he was pondering ways to hold Syrian President Bashar Assad accountable for a deadly chemical weapons attack, saying “something should happen.”
But he wouldn’t say whether that “something” should include U.S. military action against the Syrian strongman, even as he came under competing pressure from both left and right to act.
Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans, called for Trump to quickly take military action, insisting in a joint statement that Assad “must pay a punitive cost for this horrific attack.”
Democratic lawmakers, however, urged caution, demanding that Trump ask Congress for permission before making any military moves. And former U.S. officials warned that limited military action may not deter Assad for long — and could lead to an ugly, escalating imbroglio if any Russians or Iranians backing him are killed.
For Trump, the Syria dilemma is compounded by the fact that he repeatedly pledged in the past not to over-extend the United States overseas, even as he promised to make the U.S. stronger and more feared than it is now.
“I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity,” Trump told reporters Thursday. He said of Assad, “I guess he’s running things, so I guess something should happen.”
The competing messages directed at Trump echoed what Barack Obama faced in 2013, when he considered launching airstrikes against the Syrian regime after Assad crossed the then-U.S. president’s “red line” by using chemical weapons. The many voices also underscored the enduring complexity of the six-year-old conflict in Syria, where Assad, backed by Moscow and Tehran, has used brutal force to wear down rebels trying to oust him and where the Islamic State terrorist group also controls territory.
On Wednesday, Trump, in a remarkable shift from his past willingness to leave Assad alone, declared that the Syrian had crossed “many lines” in this week’s poison gas attack in Idlib province. CNN reported Thursday that Trump has told some lawmakers he is weighing military action. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump had talked to Middle East allies about the possibility of establishing “safe zones” to protect Syrians, a fuzzy concept that might involve U.S. troops. But it was not clear if Trump was weighing airstrikes, deploying ground troops, covert actions or a combination of steps to punish Assad.
That Trump has reached this point has puzzled and rattled many close watchers of the Syrian situation. Just last week, top Trump aides, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, had indicated that the Trump administration did not considering removing Assad a priority, breaking with the Obama administration’s stated approach. In 2013, when Obama pondered airstrikes after far deadlier chemical attacks, Trump repeatedly urged him not to bomb Syria. Trump also has insisted the U.S. should not admit Syrian refugees fleeing Assad, saying they might be terrorists.
Now, former officials and other observers wonder if Trump will follow through with his new resolve to hold Assad accountable — and how quickly he’ll lose interest.
“It’s not clear Trump has thought through the consequences or is prepared to accept them,” said Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign relations who advised Obama on Middle East policy. “The risks of military action are even greater now than they were then, since airstrikes to punish Assad would likely kill Russians deployed on Syrian military bases. And if Russia and Syria respond to U.S. strikes by escalating against the opposition or more civilians, is Trump prepared to escalate in turn, or will he then back down?”
NBC News, citing two unnamed U.S. military officials, reported Thursday that Syrian fixed-wing aircraft dropped the chemical weapons on civilians in Idlib earlier this week; sarin gas is suspected to have been used. Tillerson said Thursday U.S. officials believe Syria orchestrated the attack, despite denials by that government, which insisted that an airstrike had hit a warehouse where rebels stored the deadly agents.
McCain and Graham called for the United States to lead an international coalition to debilitate the Syrian Air Force so that it cannot participate in more bombings. The United States has engaged in military action against the Islamic State in Syria in a broader effort to destroy the terrorist group, but it has not yet directly, at least overtly, struck the Assad regime.
In a separate conversation with reporters, Graham said Trump should not bother to seek authorization from Congress, as Obama briefly did in 2013. Lawmakers never gave authorization to Obama, and the former president decided not to take military action, instead striking a deal with Assad to remove much, though apparently not all, of his chemical weapons stockpile.
“The last thing I want to do is to screw it up like we did last time,” Graham said. “My advice to the president is: ‘Just do it.’”
Several Democrats took exception to that.
“If there’s any contemplation about military action against Syria, the president would need to do what President Obama did and come to Congress with it,” said Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.
In 2013, Trump would have agreed with Kaine. “The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!” the now-president tweeted in August of that year.
Some Democrats warned against military action. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Trump could move to indict Assad as a war criminal and use international institutions to remove him.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said U.S. military intervention would make little difference at this stage in the war, when, thanks to Russia and Iran, Assad is stronger than in years past.
“Dropping bombs inside a crowded battle-space may make us feel big and tough, but it’s actually no answer to what’s happening inside Syria,” Murphy said. “Remember, in 2013 there was still some doubt as to whether Assad was going to win the battle. There’s little doubt now that Assad is ultimately going to control at the very least the majority of the territory inside that country.”
As usual, Russia has tried to shield Assad from international outrage. According to media reports, President Vladimir Putin told Israel’s prime minister in a phone call Thursday that “it was unacceptable to make groundless accusations against anyone without conducting a detailed and unbiased investigation.”
But Russia has never been comfortable with Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and it helped negotiate the 2013 deal to remove Assad’s stockpile of sarin and other agents. In what may be seen as a veiled warning to Assad to tone things down, a spokesman for the Kremlin told The Associated Press on Thursday that Russia’s support for Assad was not unconditional.
Still, Trump’s decision on how to deal with Assad could have profound implications for the U.S. relationship with Russia. Trump already has been criticized for seeming to cozy up to Putin, even though U.S. intelligence officials suspect Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election. The alleged interference is now the subject of an FBI investigation.
In just a few days, Tillerson, the secretary of state, will travel to Moscow and meet with top Russian leaders, and Syria is sure to be a major point of discussion. Some analysts said that if the U.S. wants leverage at the meetings, Trump may need to move fast, perhaps launching a limited series of airstrikes against targets in Syria. The strikes could, for example, hit missile launchers, airbase runways or other “capabilities” the Syrian government uses to stage assaults on rebels.
If he doesn’t, Trump may seem like he’s simply extending Obama’s policies toward Syria, said Elliott Abrams, a conservative foreign policy expert who served in the George W. Bush administration.
“Obama did nothing at all year after year to save the lives of Syrians. Now Trump has to match his rhetoric with something concrete,” Abrams said.
David Wade, who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State John Kerry, said a series of sustained, surgical strikes on Assad regime targets could inject urgency into the struggling international effort to bring about a political solution to the Syrian crisis through peace talks.
“Russia and Iran have stubbornly stuck with Assad, but Assad is a burden in their balance sheets, and they might be willing to engage in a diplomatic process that creates safe zones or humanitarian corridors or maybe over time builds towards some kind of managed transition,” Wade said. “They don’t think he’s a genius, and at times they’ve felt Assad left them exposed.”
Connor O’Brien, Josh Dawsey, Gregory Hellman, Elana Schor and Heather Caygle contributed to this report.
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