Amid praise, Trump faces questions on Syria policy
U.S. strategy uncertain after missile strike
WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump basks in widespread approval for the U.S.-led missile strike aimed at Syrian chemical weapons installations, the White House still faces a quandary over U.S. policy toward that country’s civil war — as well as some sharp questions about the president’s war powers.
Trump has yet to articulate a long-term U.S. strategy for dealing with the grinding, multisided war in Syria, which has lasted more than seven years, killed hundreds of thousands and triggered an epic refugee crisis.
Only days before the missile attack, Trump called for a rapid U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria, which critics said would yield control of the country to Russia and Iran, key allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was among those who said that Trump’s words had “emboldened” Assad to use chemical weapons.
Now, Trump is promising to keep troops in Syria, according to France’s president. Trump also plans new sanctions on Russian
companies, according to Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Several lawmakers asserted Sunday that the president should have sought congressional approval for the missile strike, launched in response to reports of deadly poison gas strikes on a rebelheld suburb of Damascus. Congress, however, repeatedly has ducked votes on Syria policy.
But even some people who have expressed vehement public disagreement with Trump’s previous actions voiced support for the strike, which was carried out in coordination with Britain and France.
Former CIA Director John Brennan was among those who praised the action as “proportional and necessary to send a signal.”
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Brennan said “the administration’s actions against Syria were appropriate — and I tend to be a critic of this administration.”
In the longer term, though, Brennan said, solutions in Syria would probably prove elusive.
Pentagon officials have said the strike significantly damaged Syria’s capacity to research and produce chemical weapons. But they have not claimed the strike eliminated Assad’s ability to carry out chemical attacks.
Some in the administration painted the strike as a possible portent of greater American involvement in the Syrian conflict. Haley warned that renewed use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians by Assad could trigger further U.S. military action. “Should he use it again, the president [Trump] has made it very clear that the United States is locked and loaded and ready to go,” Haley said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Haley acknowledged that Trump’s goal is to “see American troops come home.” But a pullout would not take place before the militants of Islamic State had been defeated and further use of chemical weapons precluded, she said.
Having secured French and British participation in the missile strike, Trump might be more obliged to heed their counsel on longterm objectives in Syria.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Sunday that despite Trump’s talk of a U.S. troop withdrawal, “we have convinced him that it is necessary to stay for the long term.”
Haley argued that Russia shares blame for the chemical attack, even if it had no direct involvement. To that end, she said, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin would announce new sanctions Monday against Russian companies with links to the Syrian government’s chemical weapons infrastructure.
In the Fox interview, Haley said that “Assad knew that Russia had its back” and that the Syrian leader “got reckless” in the suspected chemical attack in Douma on April 7.
The missile strike has generated concern among some members of Congress that it could presage a military escalation.
One of the sharpest critiques came from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate in the 2016 election.
“President Trump is not a king; he’s a president,” Kaine said on “Face the Nation,” and Trump is “supposed to come to Congress to seek permission to initiate a war.”
Some of Trump’s fellow Republicans also expressed unease over the potential for U.S. escalation in Syria without legislative input. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa supported the strikes but said on “Meet the Press” that she was “uncomfortable going forward.”
Referring to a congressional authorization for the use of military force, she said: “As many of my colleagues have also stated, we need a new AUMF,” or authorization for use of military force.
Russia signaled defiance. A Kremlin statement Sunday quoted President Vladimir Putin as having told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that the missile strike was a violation of the United Nations charter and that future such actions “will inevitably lead to chaos in international relations.”
Trump’s use of the phrase “Mission Accomplished” in a tweet on Saturday also raised eyebrows because it is closely associated with former President George W. Bush’s premature declaration of victory in Iraq in 2003.
In a tweet on Sunday morning, the president insisted that he was fully aware of the phrase’s weighted implications about U.S. miscalculations in the Middle East.
“The Syrian raid was so perfectly carried out, with such precision, that the only way the Fake News Media could demean was by my use of the term ‘Mission Accomplished,’ ” he wrote on Twitter. “I knew they would seize on this but felt it is such a great Military term, it should be brought back.
“Use often!” he said.
Syrians walk Sunday in a market in the Old City of Damascus. Some in the Trump administration painted last week’s strike as a possible portent of greater U.S. involvement in Syria.