It is not clear whether Trump knows that Russia is culpable as well and has committed its own war crimes in addition to enabling Assad’s. As Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) pointed out in an interview Wednesday on MSNBC, “It’s amazing to me that in the president’s condemnation today regarding the attack … he has not one word about Russia’s complicity in this.” Indeed, if Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s milquetoast comment that “we think it’s time that the Russians really need to think carefully about their continued support of the Assad regime” is any indication, the administration may be unwilling to confront the unpleasant truth: Without Russian help, Assad would not still be in power.
In any event, now that the genocide has grabbed Trump’s attention, the question is: What does he do about it? “It is legitimate for President Trump to want to avoid repeating his predecessor’s Syria policy, but that doesn’t obviate the need for the administration to devise and articulate its own policy,” Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told me. “From the president’s words and body language [on Wednesday], he is inching toward a more aggressive posture.” There are plenty of options, including some that Trump actually suggested in the campaign. “Perhaps he will dispatch the missile strikes against Syrian military assets that President Obama threatened and Russia and Assad feared; such swift, clear and firm action would send a lightning bolt through the region that President Trump had truly broken from his predecessor’s approach,” Satloff said. “At the least, it is legitimate to expect the president to follow through on those Syria-related commitments he did make in his election campaign — to create protection zones for Syrian refugees and other civilians; to push back on the nefarious actions of Iran, Assad’s chief regional patron, and to secure not just victory in Raqqa but a peace in which [the Islamic State] is not allowed to reconstitute itself on the ashes of continued Sunni grievances.”
We should note that Trump’s crumbling credibility and penchant for outlandish lies now come back to haunt him. He will need to make judgments as commander in chief and potentially launch new military operations. He, however, has not shown himself to be trustworthy and, as a result, will be less able to command domestic and international support for our policy.
Trump is fortunate in one regard: Congress is more than ready to support a dramatic shift in policy. Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) introduced a Senate resolution Wednesday condemning Assad’s repeated use of chemical weapons, holds him responsible for “war crimes and crimes against humanity,” condemns Russia for blocking U.N. resolutions (not, however, for its own war crimes) and reiterates that Assad has lost “legitimacy” to rule Syria. It does not, however, prescribe action. That must come from Trump and his advisers, despite Tillerson’s inexcusable comment that the fate of Syria would be up to the Syrian people. (That is plainly impossible so long as genocide continues — and will be seen as an invitation to commit more atrocities.)
The president has the power to change course. The question is whether he has the will to do so.