WASHINGTON – Praise for US President Donald Trump’s air strikes last week on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces came from far and wide, followed by a warning: Next comes the hard part.
World leaders anxiously waited for word on how the president’s bold operation might augur grander policy designs. But in the days that followed the April 6 nighttime attack on the Shayrat Air Base, which punished Assad for his use of chemical weapons on civilians just two days earlier, senior White House officials offered mixed signals and conflicting messages on his way forward
Previously willing to accept Assad’s continued grip on power, some Trump administration officials now say the president prefers he step down. Others say Assad’s removal is a “top priority,” while yet others will not directly answer the question. Trump has not commented on the matter in a public setting.
What sort of event would trigger more military action is also up for interpretation. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said the US reserved the right to act against Assad, but offered no specificity. White House press secretary Sean Spicer elaborated on Monday.
“If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president,” Spicer said.
Drawing a red line against the use of imprecise barrel bombs – a common tactic used by Assad in Syria’s civil war that has now entered its seventh year – would fundamentally change the dimensions of the conflict and likely demand a more active US role.
Hours later, Spicer clarified.
“Nothing has changed in our posture,” he said in a statement, responding to a flood of media requests.
“The president retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens,” Spicer said. “And as the president has repeatedly made clear, he will not be telegraphing his military responses.”
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has spoken out more in the past week than he has in his entire tenure at the State Department. The administration’s action on Syria seems to have scrapped any near-term possibility of rapprochement with Russia – a political hot potato in Washington, yet a policy Trump repeatedly promised to pursue while on the campaign trail.
“Russia has really aligned itself with the Assad regime, the Iranians and Hezbollah,” Tillerson said in Italy on Tuesday, on the sidelines of a gathering of G7 foreign ministers. “Is that a long-term alliance that serves Russia’s interest? Or would Russia prefer to realign with the United States, with other Western countries and Middle East countries who are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis?”
The president’s base of supporters questioned what the operation meant for his fundamental political message: America First. Days before the attack, Trump declared he was president of the United States – and not of the world. Yet his prepared statements after the strike highlight the need for America to uphold international norms and standards against the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction.
That sort of rhetoric – a hallmark of the prior administration – appears to have spread to other portfolios.
“President Trump noted the importance of adhering to international rules and norms in the East and South China Seas and to previous statements on no-nmilitarization,” the White House said in a readout of the president’s meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, shortly after the Shayrat operation. “He also noted the importance of protecting human rights and other values deeply held by Americans.”
The president said he acted in Syria based on a gut instinct, appalled by images of the use of chemicals to kill innocent children. That changed his opinion of Assad and of Syria, he said. What has followed is the process of instinct shaping US policy at breakneck speed on the world stage.