Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin are responsible for the Syrian genocidal war, including a series of apparent chemical attacks on innocents. Indeed, they are war criminals by any definition, having, among other things, deliberately targeted civilians and aid workers. President Barack Obama and his advisers who indulged in excuse after excuse to avoid action will have a blot on their record that is permanent and damning. Responsibility goes to Republicans and Democrats alike who opposed the use of force in defense of the “red line,” thereby facilitating Obama’s flip-flop. These include everyone from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to liberal Democrats. And, finally, presidential candidates (e.g., President Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.)) who egged on isolationists and urged we not oppose Assad and are not exempt from blame.
However, Trump is now commander in chief. He must decide whether to continue our passive approach and watch continued genocide unfold or whether we chart a new course. Frequent Trump critic Eliot Cohen tweeted, “Whining is cowardly & counterproductive.”
Trump’s initial statements reflecting lack of concern about Syria suggested the former. (Frankly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s statements suggesting we no longer had a policy of removing Assad may have solidified Assad’s calculation that he could act with impunity.) Former ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman tells me that “it would seem that, at least so far, the Trump Syria policy is more or less a continuation of the Obama policy. This may reflect the fact that after allowing the carnage, to coin a phrase, to go on for six years the options left to the administration range from bad to catastrophic, but allowing this to go on interminably is probably not going to work.” He adds, “Not only is the situation horrific in a humanitarian sense, but it is generating a migration catastrophe that is overwhelming Europe. It doesn’t seem to be an accident that the attack came after the administration signaled it could live with Assad, which once again is more or less a continuation of the Obama policy.”
Other critics of the passive approach to Syria think the opportunity remains to course correct. Noting stronger statements from the administration deploring the carnage, former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams (whose hiring as deputy secretary of state was nixed purportedly by Stephen K. Bannon) points out, “The question is what comes next. There are options, starting with military strikes that harm Assad’s capacity to make war and would almost certainly persuade him never to use chemical weapons again.” He explains, “The administration is caught right now: As Assad’s actions become worse and worse our rhetoric gets tougher, which is as it should be — but then inaction seems less and less defensible.” He suggests that “even a very limited strike (of the sort Obama had in mind and then walked away from) would gain widespread support, and would be a powerful message to Putin and [Chinese President Xi Jinping] that the president is going to be a tough contender.”
Indeed, at a news conference Wednesday afternoon Trump claimed the last chemical bombing changed his mind. “I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me. Big impact,” Trump said. “It was a horrible, horrible thing. I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it does not get any worse than that. I have that flexibility. And it is very, very possible, and I will tell you it is already happened, that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.” Of course this has been going on for years, but a shift is welcome yet simply saying the horror had a “big impact” will not suffice. In an abrupt change in tone from Tuesday’s blame-casting, Trump declared, “I now have responsibility, and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly. I will tell you that. It is now my responsibility.” That is a start, but what will he do?
Yes, conditions on the ground have grown worse due to years of inaction on America’s part, but nevertheless Trump is “not devoid of options,” my colleague, foreign policy guru Robert Kagan, says. “Just as the Obama administration could have acted to ground Assad’s air force, so can the Trump administration.” He adds that a range of military options (no-fly zones, no-drive zones, striking Assad’s air force) “have always been available, were recommended by top officials in the previous administration, but were consistently rejected by Susan Rice and Ben Rhodes, and of course Obama himself, as too risky and not in keeping with the new Obama doctrine of perpetual inaction.”
Trump has the chance to highlight and correct his predecessor’s tragic error in policy. That of course would mean admitting his own position on Syria and his affection for Putin were misguided, but better not to compound his mistakes by mimicking Obama’s policy. Alternatively, Trump can double down on Obama’s policy of retrenchment, as he seems to be doing on human rights and lack of urgency on Russian expansionist designs. Kagan observes, “Perhaps we should call it the Obama-Trump doctrine, since the continuities between the two administrations’ foreign policy postures grow more obvious every day and increasingly outweigh the discontinuities.” Let’s hope Trump chooses to break with his predecessor.