A chemical attack in Syria that killed scores of civilians, including children, “crossed a lot of lines for me,” President Trump said Wednesday, adding that he is now responsible for trying to end a grinding conflict he blamed his predecessor for prolonging.
Unlike his U.N. envoy, Trump did not mention Russia and its culpability for backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose government blamed the chemical release on rebel forces.

Remarkably, Trump previously was not impressed by more than 450,000 dead Syrians killed over the past six years, Assad’s numerous chemical attacks before this week, the barrel bombings, the strategy of starvation, the reign of torture documented by “Caesar,” the return of diseases such as polio or the drowning death of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, who with his family attempted to escape the horror of violence. Trump sees only a mass of refugees whose ranks he is convinced are infiltrated by terrorists. In his mind, the victims of terrorism are a danger to the United States. He banned them from the United States — or tried to — indefinitely.

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.

President Trump calls a chemical attack in Syria an "affront to humanity and says it "cannot be tolerated." (The Washington Post)

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.