From Red Lines To Blurred Lines: The Trump Administration's Syria Shift
The Trump administration has accused former President Barack Obama of "weakness and irresolution" for drawing a red line in Syria then failing to enforce it. In the days before and after last week's cruise missile strike, though, Trump's own team has drawn sometimes blurry and conflicting lines. The administration has sent mixed signals about when and why it will use military force, the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and the role it sees for Russia.
1. Use of military force
Trump campaigned on a nationalistic platform that discouraged U.S. military intervention in other parts of the globe. "We cannot be the policeman of the world," Trump said last September. "We cannot protect countries all over the world where they're not paying us what we need."
But faced with the recent chemical weapons attack — and graphic television pictures of suffering civilians — Trump adopted a more expansive view of where America's interests lie. He quickly responded by ordering a cruise missile strike on the Syrian air base from which the chemical attack was allegedly 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," Trump said in a televised address last week.
At the White House Monday, spokesman Sean Spicer insisted not much had changed.
"We're not just going to become the world's policeman running around the world," Spicer said. But he also put down his own marker, warning last week's missile strike might not be the last. "If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you can — you will see a response from this president. That is unacceptable."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went further this week, after a ceremony in Italy where he placed a wreath at the site of a World War II Nazi massacre.
"We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world," Tillerson said.
2. Assad's future
Before last week's chemical weapons attack, the Trump administration had de-emphasized the removal of Syria's president.
"You pick and choose your battles," said United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, five days before the gas attack. "Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out."
The secretary of state echoed that sentiment, saying Assad's fate "will be decided by the Syrian people."
Even on the day of the attack, there was little talk of ousting Assad at the White House. "There is not a fundamental option of regime change as there has been in the past," Spicer said. "I think we would look like, to some degree, rather silly not acknowledging the political realities that exist in Syria."
By the next day, though, Haley had adopted a tougher line at the U.N.
"There is an obvious truth here that must be spoken," she told the Security Council. "The truth is that Assad, Russia and Iran have no interest in peace. The illegitimate Syrian government, led by a man with no conscience, has committed untold atrocities against his people for more than six years. Assad has made it clear that he doesn't want to take part in a meaningful political process."
As late as Sunday, Tillerson was downplaying the need for Assad's ouster, noting that the removal of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya had created a dangerous power vacuum.
"I think we have to learn the lessons of the past and learn the lessons of what went wrong in Libya when you choose the path of regime change," Tillerson said on ABC's This Week. "We believe the Syrian people will ultimately be able to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad."
But the secretary gradually seemed to adjust his stance.
"It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end," Tillerson said this week, while traveling to Italy and Russia.
Back at the White House, Spicer also seemed to be cooling on Assad.
"You can't imagine a stable and peaceful Syria with Assad in charge," he said. "I just don't think that's a scenario that's possible."
Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump said he wanted to build stronger ties with Russia. He hoped that with Russia's influence in Syria, they could cooperate in fighting the Islamic State.
"If we can get along with Russia, that's good," Trump said in March of last year. "If Russia wants to spend millions of dollars a day dropping bombs on ISIS, I'm OK with that."
But after last week's chemical weapons attack, the administration was more critical of Russia's role in propping up Assad.
"Russia is supposed to have removed all the chemical weapons from Syria," Haley told the Security Council last week. "But obviously that has not happened, as innocent Syrians continue to be murdered in chemical attacks. Let's think about the possible reasons for Russia's failure. It could be that Russia is knowingly allowing chemical weapons to remain in Syria. It could be that Russia has been incompetent in its efforts to remove the chemical weapons. Or, it could be that the Assad regime is playing the Russians for fools, telling them that there are no chemical weapons, all the while stockpiling them on their bases."
Spicer agreed that Russia's alliance with Assad had become a liability.
"In this particular case, it's no question that Russia is isolated," Spicer said Tuesday. "They have aligned themselves with North Korea, Syria, Iran. That's not exactly a group of countries that you're looking to hang out with."
Tillerson, who was traveling to Russia for key meetings this week, also put down a challenge.
"We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people. Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role," he said. "Or Russia can maintain its alliance" with Syria and Iran.
These evolving and sometimes conflicting messages may leave both allies and adversaries uncertain about where the U.S. stands. But as far as Trump is concerned, that's OK. He spoke often during the campaign about the benefits of being unpredictable.
"He's not going to telegraph a response to every corresponding action because that just tells the opposition or the enemy what you're going to do," Spicer said Monday. "The president is going to be very clear that he's going to keep his cards close to the vest. But make no mistake. He will act."
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