When President Barack Obama geared up for air strikes to enforce his chemical weapons “red line” in Syria four years ago, Donald Trump cried foul.
As Obama rallied support for an attack to punish Syrian ruler Bashar Assad’s use of nerve gas against civilians, Trump in a series of tweets expressed little concern for the innocent victims and insisted that the United States had no business in Syria.
“The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement,” Trump tweeted in September 2013, referring to Obama’s declaration the year before that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and trigger punitive U.S. action.
“Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.,” Trump added at the time.
He maintained that position as a presidential candidate, two years after Obama abandoned the strikes. “I wouldn’t have drawn the line,” he said in a September 2015 GOP debate.
But on Wednesday, Trump seemed to embrace his own red line during a press conference that confounded assumptions about his foreign policy and convinced some observers that he might order the sort of military action he once denounced Obama for considering.
“He basically implored President Obama not to take military action,” said Jon Finer, who was chief of staff to former Secretary of State John Kerry. “We’re hearing a different tone now from President Trump on President Assad and the nature of his brutal rule over Syria.”
Appearing next to Jordan’s King Abdullah at the White House, Trump said Assad must be held accountable for a chemical weapons attack this week in a pro-rebel area that reportedly killed dozens of people, many of them children. U.S. officials believe the Assad regime is likely behind the attack, which bore the hallmarks of nerve gas, though Damascus has denied responsibility.
Asked whether the attack violated a “red line” for him, Trump said that it “crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line.”
Trump would not specify what kind of response he would deliver to Syria’s government. “You will see. They will have a message. You will see what the message is,” he said.
But after calling the attack “an affront to humanity,” Trump suggested he was reconsidering his view that the United States should not work to remove Assad from power. “My attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much,” he said.
Trump’s surprising words came in a week when attention had been focused on his seeming disinterest in human rights and other humanitarian concerns abroad. On Monday, Trump hosted Egypt’s repressive leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, at the White House, where he made no public reference to the Arab dictator’s historic political crackdown in his country or the imprisonment there of several American citizens.
But in a sign that Trump’s comments were not unscripted freelancing, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley urged the U.N. Security Council earlier on Wednesday to take strong action against the Assad regime. If it did not, she said, “there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”
The White House’s turnaround on Syria galled former Obama administration officials, particularly when Trump seemed to blame Obama for this week’s atrocity there. Trump recalled Wednesday that Obama, after moving to the brink of military action, abruptly called off his planned air strikes. (Obama first said he wanted Congress to vote on any military action; he then shelved the plan entirely after striking a deal with Russia, an ally of Assad, to peacefully remove and destroy the country’s deadly chemical stockpile.)
“I think the Obama administration had a great opportunity to solve this crisis,” Trump said. “When he didn’t cross that line, after making the threat, I think that set us back a long ways. It was a blank threat.”
But Trump himself had urged Obama not to follow through on the threat, saying in September 2013 that there was “no upside and tremendous downside.”
If Trump does take action against Assad, it could complicate his relationship with Russia, whose military is fighting alongside Syrian forces. During the Obama presidency, the Kremlin warned that it would use force to defend the Assad regime from potential U.S. aggression.
On Wednesday, a Russian defense ministry spokesman said the gas was released when Syrian air strikes hit a rebel-held chemical weapons factory.
Any U.S. action on the crowded Syrian battlefield could also have unpredictable consequences.
“If they do go after something meaningful in terms of military targets, would they be willing to kill Russians? There are a lot in Syria now,” asked Derek Chollet, a former senior Pentagon official who was involved in planning for the aborted 2013 strikes.
Some former Obama administration officials said they would welcome a limited strike against Syrian forces as a way of reasserting U.S. power in the Middle East—and to provide Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with leverage ahead of his planned visit to Moscow on April 12.
“The timing of Tillerson’s visit is good because he can, in the aftermath of whatever action we take, go to the Russians with a stronger hand and explain to them what our objectives are in the Middle East,” said Evelyn Farkas, who served as the Pentagon’s top Russia official under Obama.
“It’s very important to show the Syrian regime and the world, other would-be chemical bombers, that you cannot get away with this,” she said.
Whether Trump has committed himself to the action he urged Obama against remains unknown.
But he did make clear that his perspective changed once a chemical massacre occurred on his watch.
“I now have responsibility,” Trump said.
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