As late as earlier this week, some in the White House were saying that for the U.S. to pursue the ouster of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad would be “silly.” But after President Donald Trump’s strong statement on Wednesday about Assad’s use of chemical weapons and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s denunciation of both the Syrian government and its Russian enabler, the notion of American action — both diplomatic and possibly even military — directed against Assad can’t be considered so silly. Indeed, as the Trump foreign-policy team assesses its goals in the Middle East, reversing course on Syria may be the only way the president has of fulfilling his promise to defeat ISIS.
Those who cheered Trump’s determination to avoid foreign entanglements — especially ones rooted in humanitarian concerns — may be hoping that the administration’s most recent statements about Syria won’t be translated into action. Given Trump’s history of deprecating the Bush administration and his criticism of President Obama for even thinking about enforcing his “red line” threat to Assad that Trump now correctly sees as making his predecessor responsible for the mess he inherited, it is entirely possible that Trump will ultimately do nothing. But it’s also possible that this administration, like so many of its predecessors, is working its way toward inescapable conclusions about policy that contradict campaign rhetoric. Much as Trump would have liked to leave Assad in place, events may have made that impossible.
When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Ambassador Haley, and White House spokesman Sean Spicer were dismissing the idea of seeking Assad’s removal, they were merely acknowledging facts. Obama’s timidity combined with massive military intervention by Iran, Tehran’s Hezbollah auxiliaries, and, most importantly, Russia, meant the Damascus regime had largely won a civil war they were in danger of losing a few years ago. In 2013, when Obama stated that the use of chemical weapons by Assad meant crossing a “red line” the West would not ignore, the outcome of the war was still in doubt. While some rebel forces remain in the field, the dictator’s hold on power is no longer in question. The one truly potent threat is ISIS, which the Syrian government and its allies have largely left alone even as they have laid waste to any area where other dissidents have been located.
While Assad would like to reclaim all of his territory, ISIS, which still controls large stretches of both Syria and Iraq, has not been a priority. Assad and the Russians have been content to allow it to maintain its strength, since it has been a greater threat to the government of Iraq and its Western and Arab allies than to them. But his latest use of chemical weapons — which were supposed to have been collected by Russia, according to the face-saving agreement Obama concluded with Putin in order to justify his refusal to enforce his “red line” threat — has done more than generate international outrage.
The problem for Trump isn’t just that neither he nor the rest of his foreign-policy team are comfortable with maintaining silence about gas attacks on civilians or the fact that their Russian “friends” have no shame about providing diplomatic cover for Assad’s atrocities at the United Nations. It’s that they may be starting to realize that a tilt toward Russia may not be compatible with Trump’s promises of a successful war against the Islamic State.
The West rightly regards ISIS as a barbarous terror group that has inflicted countless atrocities on minority groups and political opponents in Syria and Iraq. But to Sunni Muslims in Syria, the Islamic State is the only force that is still effectively resisting the depredations of a Syrian government that many link to the Alawite minority. As much as both Obama and now Trump may have hoped that a war on ISIS could be prosecuted in cooperation with the Russian and Iranian forces helping Assad, the gas attack is a reminder that so long as Assad’s butchers are terrorizing and slaughtering civilians with impunity, ISIS will have the support of many Syrians.
This week’s reports of Assad’s depredations may be forcing the president to confront the basic contradictions at the heart of his approach to the region. Just as he must choose between a desire to get tough with an Iranian government that seeks regional hegemony and his desire to avoid confrontations with their Russian ally in Syria, so, too, must Trump come to grips with the fact that the military victory over ISIS he promised last year is incompatible with a policy of leaving Assad in place.
Rather than emulate Obama and sit back and let the Russians have their way in Syria, Trump must use all of the formidable resources at his disposal to get Moscow to rein in or abandon their client. As Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) suggested on Wednesday, that might involve the use of covert action or military force against Assad. The motivation for Trump pressuring the Russians in this manner isn’t so much a justified outrage at what has happened in Syria as a realization that acquiescence to the current state of affairs is antithetical to U.S. security goals about terror that Trump should regard as more important than his pro-Russian tilt.
It is ironic that a president whose political success was in no small measure advanced by his stand against interventionism is now being forced to deal with the costs of a policy of appeasement of Russia that he advocated. But the world looks very different from the Oval Office. This wouldn’t be the first administration that was transformed by events that weren’t foreseen or properly understood before it took office. Should Trump hesitate to press the Russians or simply let this moment pass without U.S. action of some kind, that may be what some in his base want. But Bashar al-Assad’s deplorable actions may have brought some much-needed clarity to Trump’s otherwise muddled foreign-policy vision that will compel him to change his tune.
— Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.