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A chemical weapons attack in Syria exposes Trump’s Assad problem

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Yet again, the world is watching gut-wrenching images emerge from the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria.

Activists claim the Syrian government launched an airstrike on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the country's northwestern Idlib province. Scores of civilians, including many women and children, were reportedly killed.

Video footage surfaced on social media of small, frantic children being hosed off by rescuers in the hopes of washing away whatever lethal chemical agent had hit them. Other gruesome reports showed corpses hastily wrapped in blankets, victims with foam coming out of their mouths and a chilling scene of lifeless boys, their torsos bare, eyes open and limbs contorted in shock.

The death toll was unclear at the time of writing, with aid agencies and monitoring groups putting the number anywhere from 58 up to 100 killed.

Supporters of the Syrian regime rejected any link to a chemical weapons strike. They claimed the reports were fabricated by terrorist groups in Idlib and suggested the fatalities were the result of an explosion at a supposed al-Qaeda chemical weapons factory. Russian authorities, whose warplanes are flying in support of the regime, said they had not conducted a strike in the area around the town. But the broader international reaction was vehement — and put the blame squarely on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"Once again the Syrian regime will deny the evidence of its responsibility for this massacre," French President François Hollande said in a statement.

"Bombing your own civilians with chemical weapons is unquestionably a war crime, and they must be held to account," declared British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said the attack was a crime against humanity that could derail the fragile Syrian peace process.

The French and British ambassadors at the United Nations called for an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Wednesday morning.

Such strikes are a regime tactic to further demoralize the flagging rebellion. "Assad calculates, reasonably, that military dynamics play in his favor. By using chemical weapons and other weapons, he is demonstrating the powerlessness of international actors," Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Washington Post.

But in Washington, the Trump administration initially chose to blame its predecessor, another sign the White House is far more comfortable operating as if it's still running an election campaign rather than the world's only superpower.

"Today's chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world," said White House press secretary Sean Spicer. "These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration's weakness and irresolution."

Spicer, speaking at a press briefing, added: "President Obama said in 2012 he would establish a red line against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable act."

Suspected chemical attack kills scores of men, women and children in Syria (Video: The Washington Post)

It's seemingly a bizarre line of attack for the Trump administration to choose. In 2013, the Obama administration contemplated a military response after a suspected regime chemical weapons attack on rebel-held districts in the suburbs of Damascus killed more than 1,000 people. The mounting international pressure at the time compelled Assad to agree to eliminate its chemical weapons program.

The fact that Obama chose to back off from confronting the Assad regime, which allegedly used chemical weapons numerous times in the years since, will forever haunt the former president's legacy. Much of the Washington foreign policy establishment has excoriated him for it. But Trump in 2013 — then a private citizen with the same itchy Twitter finger — was opposed to American intervention in Syria.

The irony is that Trump's position on the Syrian conflict isn't that far removed from Obama's — although it's more conspicuous in its indifference to the plight of Syrian refugees. The previous administration called for Assad's departure, but it did little to actually push for regime change, fearing that any deeper involvement in the Syrian conflict would risk the sort of blowback and chaos that rocked Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion. Trump, meanwhile, has insisted on multiple occasions that he is not interested in nation-building in the Middle East or dictating regime change. His lieutenants indicated as recently as last week that the White House does not prioritize removing Assad from power.

"No one — not even President Obama, as far as I could tell — was satisfied with the Obama administration’s approach to the conflict in Syria," wrote Andrew Exum, a former Obama-era Pentagon official, in the Atlantic. "But if you assembled all of the Obama administration’s critics in one room, they would not agree on an obvious alternative. The problem is wicked enough to confound easy solutions, and each policy alternative had strategic and moral deficiencies."

Instead of being weighed down by the strategic headache of Syria — what Spicer described as "weakness and irresolution" — you get the impression that Trump has decided to brush it all aside in favor of aggressive posturing and a steady escalation of the military campaign against the Islamic State. It’s the kind of brazenness that may have deep costs — as seen in the scores of Iraqi civilians likely killed by a recent American airstrike in the city of Mosul.

"This president would be wise to remember what his predecessor knew: War is a very imperfect instrument of policy," wrote Exum.

Later on Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put out a more measured statement that singled out the "brutal, unabashed barbarism" of the Assad regime. It scolded Assad's boosters, Russia and Iran, for not ensuring the regime's "compliance" with a cease-fire they were supposed to guarantee and said they "bear great moral responsibility" for Syrian civilian deaths. This, as analysts noted, while scoring no political points at home, was more intelligent messaging in the face of a complex challenge. But for now, his boss seems content to ignore the complexity altogether.

The scene in Syria after a chemical attack kills dozens in April

A Syrian man in taken by civil defence workers following a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, on April 4, 2017. Warplanes carried out a suspected toxic gas attack that killed at least 35 people including several children, a monitoring group said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said those killed in the town of Khan Sheikhun, in Idlib province, had died from the effects of the gas, adding that dozens more suffered respiratory problems and other symptoms. / AFP PHOTO / Mohamed al-BakourMOHAMED AL-BAKOUR/AFP/Getty Images (Mohamed Al-Bakour/AFP/Getty Images)

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