White House Talking Tough on Syria

 

This week’s chemical attack on civilians has changed President Trump’s attitude toward the intractable civil war in Syria. At a Rose Garden press conference with King Abdullah of Jordan, Trump condemned the attack and the brutality of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“It’s very, very possible, and I will tell you it has already happened, that my attitude toward Syria and Assad, has changed very much,” Mr. Trump said. “I think the Obama administration had a great opportunity to solve this crisis. 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.”

When a reporter asked if Assad’s apparent use of WMDs crossed a “red line,” Trump said it did. “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal — people were shocked to hear what gas it was — that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines,” he said.

The President didn’t announce any specific action against Assad, but the administration’s tough talk is spreading.

Wednesday at the UN, Amb. Nikki Haley blamed Russia for blocking a strong response to the chemical weapons attack. “Time and time again Russia uses the same false narrative to deflect attention from their allies in Damascus,” she said at an emergency session. “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”

“When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action,” Haley warned in her closing remarks. “For the sake of the victims, I hope the rest of the council is finally willing to do the same.”

Trump strongly opposed military intervention in Syria while he was a private citizen. Now that he sits behind the Resolute desk, is he changing his mind?

Published in Foreign Policy, Military
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  1. Spin Coolidge
    Spin
    @Spin

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: Trump strongly opposed military intervention in Syria while he was a private citizen. Now that he sits behind the Resolute desk, is he changing his mind?

    It’s real easy to arm chair quarterback.  I suspect things look a lot differently when the ball has been hiked, the line missed a block, and you now have to decide what to do, then do it.

    • #1
  2. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    The sad thing is that a plan was in place to destroy Syrian military airfields with cruise missiles and airstrikes if Syria conducted more chemical weapons attacks after President Obama drew his line in the sand. It was never used and Ivan the Syrian is now flying over Syrian airspace. There are reports that Russian pilots were also flying in the latest chemical weapons attack. President Obama was at best a slow learner, at worst he had no intention of carrying out any plan that might interfere with his Leftist world view of America and the Israelis as the real drawback to peace.

    • #2
  3. Roberto Member
    Roberto
    @Roberto

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: Trump strongly opposed military intervention in Syria while he was a private citizen. Now that he sits behind the Resolute desk, is he changing his mind?

    What would constitute intervention?

    The way this is often phrased the implication is the US becomes involved, directly or indirectly, with the overthrow of Assad. However there are other possibilities which would not tie down the Trump administration in the sort of Middle East quagmire he has constantly decried. Operation El Dorado comes to mind, a specific response to a specific event that “crossed the line” as it were.

    • #3
  4. Aaron Miller Inactive
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Foreign policy regarding bad actors is perhaps the most important open question about Trump as President. He has been true to his campaign rhetoric so far on other issues, so it’s reasonable to expect him to follow up on tough talk. But what form that will take is anybody’s guess.

    • #4
  5. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    There is no solution.

    Obama the destroyer screwed this up big time just like Libya.

    The Iran-Hezbollah axis needed to be destroyed before Assad could be taken out. They were not going allow any peaceful transition of power to any Sunni-dominated government. Absent the Iran-Hezbollah influence, the possibility existed of a coalition of interests putting down any Sunni extremists.

    • #5
  6. Sleepywhiner Inactive
    Sleepywhiner
    @Sleepywhiner

    I thought John Kerry and Obama and The Russians had gotten rid of Assad’s chemical weapons? Wha’ happened?

    Anyway, since obviously that bit of work with our Russian friends was a failure, and they’re flying over Syria now, what good options remain?

    • #6
  7. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    As awful as Assad’s crimes are, and the brutality of the Syrian civil war in general, I don’t see how significant American military intervention will fix it. The only people who brought a lasting peace to certain middle eastern hot spots were the Romans and the Mongols. And they did it by nearly killing everyone there.

    Unless western powers are willing to go full Rome (or fight in a fashion reminiscent of Jenjis Khan), I see approximately zero chance of bringing peace to Syria.

    As Tacitus said, Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. They create a desolation, and call it peace.

    • #7
  8. JcTPatriot Inactive
    JcTPatriot
    @JcTPatriot

    Syria has been an unsolvable situation for a long time. I believe that Obama didn’t take out Assad because if he did, the country would descend into chaos, with warlords battling each other without limits. The loss of life would be far worse than it already is. In a way, Assad has actually been keeping Syria more peaceful than it would be without him. Crazy, I know, but what little bit I actually understand tells me that genocide is the next step, no matter what you try to do. If we did (in my opinion) the most stupid thing, which would be to pour American troops into the country, then Muslims would also pour in by the tens of thousands from surrounding areas.

    This is one of the few places in the world where (I don’t like to say it) we have absolutely no business getting involved. Nobody there likes us and nobody there would want to be on “our side”. I really don’t see anything happening there except the slaughter of Americans, if we get involved.

    • #8
  9. JLock Inactive
    JLock
    @CrazyHorse

    He’s right about the Obama Admin. And it wouldnt have fallen on so many deaf ears had he abstained from whining incessantly about wiretaps.

    • #9
  10. JcTPatriot Inactive
    JcTPatriot
    @JcTPatriot

    Jon Gabriel, Ed. (View Comment):
    As awful as Assad’s crimes are, and the brutality of the Syrian civil war in general, I don’t see how significant American military intervention will fix it. The only people who brought a lasting peace to certain middle eastern hot spots were the Romans and the Mongols. And they did it by nearly killing everyone there.

    Unless western powers are willing to go full Rome (or fight in a fashion reminiscent of Jenjis Khan), I see approximately zero chance of bringing peace to Syria.

    As Tacitus said, Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. They create a desolation, and call it peace.

    Excellent comment, Jon. I wish Trump could just take your advice, get in front of the cameras and say, “We aren’t going to do anything in Syria, because the only thing we could do is keep wiping people out until there is nobody left who is willing to fight, and we don’t want to do that.”

    • #10
  11. JcTPatriot Inactive
    JcTPatriot
    @JcTPatriot

    ctlaw (View Comment):
    There is no solution.

    Obama the destroyer screwed this up big time just like Libya.

    The Iran-Hezbollah axis needed to be destroyed before Assad could be taken out. They were not going allow any peaceful transition of power to any Sunni-dominated government. Absent the Iran-Hezbollah influence, the possibility existed of a coalition of interests putting down any Sunni extremists.

    That’s a good point, but even though it would give me a sense of satisfaction, I can’t blame Obama for anything going on in Syria. That country has been unsolvable for longer than the oldest of us has been alive, and longer.

    Off the subject, but I remember I used to think that we could get somewhere with the Israeli – Palestinian situation if we could just get rid of Yasser Arafat. But that dude’s been dead for a decade (?) and nothing has changed.

    It seems like the people over there aren’t happy unless they’re slitting someone’s throat. Almost all the world has been calmed down, mostly by the USA presence and/or peacemaking, but nothing anyone tries to do calms that part of the world down, even a little.

    • #11
  12. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    I recall at the time of the “Red Line” talk from Obama, on the cusp of taking some sort of action, it was Republicans who fought to kill any authorization for military action. On this very website many were saying Obama could not be trusted with a go ahead to use force because he was so feckless. Politically trapped Obama entered into a face saving deal with Putin agreeing to allow Assad to disarm his chemical weapons. The actions by Assad this week reveal that deal to be the sham many of us suspected, but Republicans should remember that when the first Red Line was crossed they chose to play politics to score cheap points on Obama. Trump was exactly one of those Republicans at the time.

    Talk comes cheap to Trump especially tough talk, but what has also comes cheap to Trump is effusive praise and apologetics for Putin. In the face of such pathetic grovelling before Putin why should Assad have thought Trump would be anything but passive to this latest outrage? After all if Trump wants to work with Russia in Syria that means working with Assad too.

    While ISIS may be responsible for the most outlandish and extravagant war crimes in Syria the bulk of the murdering has by all estimates been carried out by Assad with the help of the Iranians and Russians. This was clear long ago, but I guess Trump we couldn’t expect Trump to have known this until now.

    • #12
  13. JLock Inactive
    JLock
    @CrazyHorse

    JcTPatriot (View Comment):

    Jon Gabriel, Ed. (View Comment):
    As awful as Assad’s crimes are, and the brutality of the Syrian civil war in general, I don’t see how significant American military intervention will fix it. The only people who brought a lasting peace to certain middle eastern hot spots were the Romans and the Mongols. And they did it by nearly killing everyone there.

    Unless western powers are willing to go full Rome (or fight in a fashion reminiscent of Jenjis Khan), I see approximately zero chance of bringing peace to Syria.

    As Tacitus said, Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. They create a desolation, and call it peace.

    Excellent comment, Jon. I wish Trump could just take your advice, get in front of the cameras and say, “We aren’t going to do anything in Syria, because the only thing we could do is keep wiping people out until there is nobody left who is willing to fight, and we don’t want to do that.”

    Also, you know, bombing the ever-loving snot out of St. Peter’s old hood can’t be great for them pearly gates.

    • #13
  14. JcTPatriot Inactive
    JcTPatriot
    @JcTPatriot

    Twitter (at least the folks I follow) seems to have lit up with people saying we need to stay out of Syria, no matter what methods they are using to murder each other. Ann Coulter topped it off by re-tweeting a four-year-old Donald Trump tweet:

    Let’s see if he gets the hint.

    • #14
  15. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Maybe I’m just an old country neocon ill-equipped to navigate the complexities of the region, but if we said that any use of chemical weapons would result in a  few precision-guided munitions into one of Assad’s houses, he might think twice. Heck, maybe we’ll hit four or five at once. Maybe one a week for an undetermined time – Tuesdays once week, Thursday the next. If he happens to be home at the time, them’s the breaks.

    We never seem to want to make it personal. Better off bombing the Ministry of Ministers after hours!  Feh. Hit him where he lives once, and I suspect he would start to factor it into his worldview.

    • #15
  16. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    ctlaw (View Comment):
    There is no solution.

    Obama the destroyer screwed this up big time just like Libya.

    The Iran-Hezbollah axis needed to be destroyed before Assad could be taken out. They were not going allow any peaceful transition of power to any Sunni-dominated government. Absent the Iran-Hezbollah influence, the possibility existed of a coalition of interests putting down any Sunni extremists.

    It’s not quite like Libya. Libya is struggling, with two rival democratically elected parliaments failing to unify, but it doesn’t have Syria like problems. Libya looks likely to resolve its greatest problems over the next couple of years, but those problems are mostly problems for Libya. Syria is a first rank problem for the entire world, from the European economic and social issues to the radicalization of enormous numbers of people.

    To put it another way, Libyan problems are to Syria’s as the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was to Obamacare.

    • #16
  17. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    Jon Gabriel, Ed. (View Comment):
    As awful as Assad’s crimes are, and the brutality of the Syrian civil war in general, I don’t see how significant American military intervention will fix it. The only people who brought a lasting peace to certain middle eastern hot spots were the Romans and the Mongols. And they did it by nearly killing everyone there.

    How long do you want a lasting peace to last? The Arabs, the Persians, the Assyrians, the Ottomans, and others all managed centuries of relative peace (compare, say, Europe or America).

    Unless western powers are willing to go full Rome (or fight in a fashion reminiscent of Jenjis Khan), I see approximately zero chance of bringing peace to Syria.

    What do you base this on? Libya is pretty similar in income, population, demographics, and such, and is mostly peaceful today. It doesn’t have great governance, but no one can tell Trump’s policy on it because it’s not important enough to ask him about. A relatively small amount of Western effort was enough to make it a second rank problem without resorting to genocide. With more effort, most of Iraq, particularly the Shia parts, is now peaceful, again without the sorts of atrocities you appear to be referring to (it’s not all that clear because the Mithridatic wars were not particularly noted for their atrocities). It appears the remaining ISIS stronghold, the northwestern quarter of Mosul, should be freed again without a Ghengis style approach.

    As Tacitus said, Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. They create a desolation, and call it peace.

    It seems to me like the US wins plenty of wars without taking this approach. South Koreans, Kuwaitis, the ex-Yugoslavs, and such seem to be mostly enjoying peace in a non-euphemistic sense. There were some parts of US occupied Germany and Japan that saw substantial portions of civilians die at American hands, but most of the countries did not.

    Maybe Syria is not like the others, but I’m not clear what makes you confident that this is the case.

    • #17
  18. Guruforhire Inactive
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    Hasn’t trump been talking about setting up safe areas in syria for awhile now?

    • #18
  19. Chris Campion Coolidge
    Chris Campion
    @ChrisCampion

    Spin (View Comment):

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: Trump strongly opposed military intervention in Syria while he was a private citizen. Now that he sits behind the Resolute desk, is he changing his mind?

    It’s real easy to arm chair quarterback. I suspect things look a lot differently when the ball has been hiked, the line missed a block, and you now have to decide what to do, then do it.

    Stop picking on Barry!

    • #19
  20. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    Guruforhire (View Comment):
    Hasn’t trump been talking about setting up safe areas in syria for awhile now?

    Yeah, campaign promises to draw down involvement in Syria were always balanced somewhat by promises to escalate involvement. In this respect, Syria policy is not exactly unique; see also trade agreements (more? Fewer? Shorter? Longer?), healthcare, etc.

    His policy substance on immigration is mostly pretty moderate, too, but his base and the media combine to make him sound more like Jon’s position than the Trump version of nuance (conflicting strong views) appears to be placing him. The alt-right and the left both benefit when Trump appears to write off the region, but this week’s talks appear to have seemed worthwhile to him.

    • #20
  21. Chris Campion Coolidge
    Chris Campion
    @ChrisCampion

    James Of England (View Comment):

    Jon Gabriel, Ed. (View Comment):
    As awful as Assad’s crimes are, and the brutality of the Syrian civil war in general, I don’t see how significant American military intervention will fix it. The only people who brought a lasting peace to certain middle eastern hot spots were the Romans and the Mongols. And they did it by nearly killing everyone there.

    How long do you want a lasting peace to last? The Arabs, the Persians, the Assyrians, the Ottomans, and others all managed centuries of relative peace (compare, say, Europe or America).

    Unless western powers are willing to go full Rome (or fight in a fashion reminiscent of Jenjis Khan), I see approximately zero chance of bringing peace to Syria.

    What do you base this on? Libya is pretty similar in income, population, demographics, and such, and is mostly peaceful today. It doesn’t have great governance, but no one can tell Trump’s policy on it because it’s not important enough to ask him about. A relatively small amount of Western effort was enough to make it a second rank problem without resorting to genocide. With more effort, most of Iraq, particularly the Shia parts, is now peaceful, again without the sorts of atrocities you appear to be referring to (it’s not all that clear because the Mithridatic wars were not particularly noted for their atrocities). It appears the remaining ISIS stronghold, the northwestern quarter of Mosul, should be freed again without a Ghengis style approach.

    As Tacitus said, Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. They create a desolation, and call it peace.

    It seems to me like the US wins plenty of wars without taking this approach. South Koreans, Kuwaitis, the ex-Yugoslavs, and such seem to be mostly enjoying peace in a non-euphemistic sense. There were some parts of US occupied Germany and Japan that saw substantial portions of civilians die at American hands, but most of the countries did not.

    Maybe Syria is not like the others, but I’m not clear what makes you confident that this is the case.

    But plenty of wars were decided by enormous levels of destruction – WW2, as a small example.  Ask Dresden and Tokyo – not to mention one or two other cities in Japan.  Oh, and North Korea was at least partially won by the very real threat of nuclear weapons being dropped on their heads – or China’s – by a country that just dropped two of them on one of their neighbors eight years earlier.

    • #21
  22. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    Chris Campion (View Comment):

    James Of England (View Comment):

    Jon Gabriel, Ed. (View Comment):

    It seems to me like the US wins plenty of wars without taking this approach. South Koreans, Kuwaitis, the ex-Yugoslavs, and such seem to be mostly enjoying peace in a non-euphemistic sense. There were some parts of US occupied Germany and Japan that saw substantial portions of civilians die at American hands, but most of the countries did not.

    Maybe Syria is not like the others, but I’m not clear what makes you confident that this is the case.

    But plenty of wars were decided by enormous levels of destruction –

    If Jon were presenting it as an option, I’d agree.

    WW2, as a small example. Ask Dresden and Tokyo – not to mention one or two other cities in Japan.

    Japan saw a little over 3% of its civilian population die from all causes. The Germans saw more, but mostly from German and Russian efforts. The Italians lost well under half a percent. The bombing of civilians was not a pacifying measure but one aimed at destroying capacity and/ or demonstrating the futility of fighting a nuclear America.

    Oh, and North Korea was at least partially won by the very real threat of nuclear weapons being dropped on their heads – or China’s – by a country that just dropped two of them on one of their neighbors eight years earlier.

    The Korean War came to a peace agreement that more or less mirrored the final agreement on all fronts bar pow exchanges before the nuclear threat was issued. Then the war went on another two years with a threat of nukes because they were bad at negotiating the pow issue.

    edit: to clarify, the Korean War was done when the participants agreed to end it; it didn’t require atrocities to be inflicted as a tool of persuasion. It’s hard to imagine an atrocity the US could have inflicted that the Norks would have felt was unacceptable for their people.

    • #22
  23. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    What could we hope to achieve?  What could be our goal doing anything.  Reduce violence?  Not possible.  Establish stability? Assad is as stable as it gets until a successor regime kills all non Sunni’s and everybody else that moves.   Take over?  Good lord no.  We can take it to the UN and let it do nothing noisily, or maybe even miracle of miracles, it could lead to some kind of safe zone with no fly and UN presence. Which would be something we can ask for and work toward.  There is no point asking Assad to step down or for parties to stop killing each other, or call for a cease fire.

    • #23
  24. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    Sleepywhiner (View Comment):
    I thought John Kerry and Obama and The Russians had gotten rid of Assad’s chemical weapons? Wha’ happened?

     

    This point seems to be lost in the discussion.   Obama and the clown car of Dems and media assured us that Obama had made a deal and 100% of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile had been handed over and destroyed.     He trumpeted this as recently as an interview this January!

    And didn’t Clinton, back in the day, assure us that there was a deal to keep North Korea from getting nuclear weapons?

    Makes you wonder about Iran.

    • #24
  25. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    Spin (View Comment):

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: Trump strongly opposed military intervention in Syria while he was a private citizen. Now that he sits behind the Resolute desk, is he changing his mind?

    It’s real easy to arm chair quarterback. I suspect things look a lot differently when the ball has been hiked, the line missed a block, and you now have to decide what to do, then do it.

    Who’s ready to go fight in Syria?

     

    • #25
  26. Penfold Member
    Penfold
    @Penfold

    I like a tough talking president, especially if he backs it up with resolute action.  Carry a big stick and all that.  But does DT even hear himself when he speaks?

    “It’s very, very possible, and I will tell you it has already happened, that my attitude toward Syria and Assad, has changed very much,”

    • #26
  27. Penfold Member
    Penfold
    @Penfold

    Ekosj (View Comment):
    He trumpeted this as recently as an interview this January!

    Don’t you see?  Assad only re-obtained chemical weapons in the last 2 months because – Trump. (I better put my sarcasm flag up here)

    • #27
  28. Matt Y. Inactive
    Matt Y.
    @MattY

    Haley has been the voice of moral clarity in the Trump administration so far. (First female President?) Glad to see the President join in on this occasion. I’m glad his words didn’t sweep this under the rug. (Note, I can and do praise Trump when I agree with him). Hopefully his actions will follow. The United States cannot be seen as supporting or condoning Assad’s atrocities. Repressive regimes radicalize their citizens because they want to get back at their cruel government and the foreign influences that back their government.  That doesn’t mean we should overthrow all repressive regimes – like Al-Sisi in Egypt – but it does mean we should pressure them to change, and we shouldn’t prop up those regimes when they’re past the point of stabilizing their country. Assad was past that point in 2013, and it’s long past time for him to go. Any indication from the U.S. now that we are prepared to coexist peacefully with Assad will be taken as an invitation by Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies to terrorize his population further to bring them under control. It will be counterproductive in the long term. Hopefully the President has a big stick to go along with his tough talk.

    Rubio on Syria:

    Rubio: "You see these images? You see these children?"

    Imagine if you are that father and that is your child who has just been gassed to death by Bashar al-Assad's regime in #Syria. You will never ever accept that regime as your rightful leader. And you are full of hatred and you are full of vengeance for what they have done to you and to your family. Put yourself in that position.We also can’t ignore the countries that made this possible. This would never have been possible had Assad not had cover from Russia's Vladimir Putin.There needs to be a level of outrage. This needs to become a priority. Otherwise, we have lost our compass as a people and as a nation.

    Posted by Senator Marco Rubio on Wednesday, April 5, 2017

    • #28
  29. JcTPatriot Inactive
    JcTPatriot
    @JcTPatriot

    I’ll tell you, the more I read about this, the less sense it makes that Assad would do something this stupid. From Zero Hedge:

    Many have questioned why Assad would be so strategically stupid as to order a chemical weapons attack and incite the wrath of the world given that he is closer than ever to winning the war against ISIS and jihadist rebels.

    Just five days before the attack, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “The longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” implying a definite shift in U.S. foreign policy away from regime change in Syria.

    Why would Assad put such assurances in jeopardy by launching a horrific chemical attack, allowing establishment news outlets like CNN to once against use children as props to push for yet another massive war in the Middle East?

    From other various places around the Web:

    The narrative for the August 2013 [gas] attack in Ghouta, which Barack Obama cited as the pretext for a long awaited U.S. attack on government targets in aid of jihadist rebels, completely collapsed after it emerged that the casualties were the result of an accident caused by rebels mishandling chemical weapons provided to them by Saudi Arabia.

    The United Nations’ Carla Del Ponte also said that evidence suggested rebels had used sarin nerve gas.

    [It was] also revealed how then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was instrumental in approving the transportation of Libyan chemical weapons stockpiles to be handed to jihadist rebels in Syria.

    It could very well have been another accident by the rebels, since we now know they are more than willing to exploit their dead children to take over Syria.

    But I think the big question that keeps coming up in my mind is, are the people trying to take over Syria “better” than the people already in charge? I think of Libya and Egypt as I ponder this question.

     

    • #29
  30. Franz Drumlin Member
    Franz Drumlin
    @FranzDrumlin

    Matt Y. (View Comment):
    Haley has been the voice of moral clarity in the Trump administration so far. (First female President?) Glad to see the President join in on this occasion. I’m glad his words didn’t sweep this under the rug. (Note, I can and do praise Trump when I agree with him). Hopefully his actions will follow.

    SecDef Mattis has first-hand experience in this sad part of the world. He knows what military actions entail. He knows what is militarily possible and what isn’t. I know: war is too important to leave to the generals, but let’s hope President Trump has his cell phone number on speed dial.

    • #30
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