Trump warns Rus­sia, Syria over deadly gas attack

The Week (US) - - 4 News - Sune En­gel Ras­mussen

What hap­pened

Amid in­ter­na­tional up­roar over a deadly chem­i­cal-weapons attack in Syria, Pres­i­dent Trump this week an­nounced that he was pre­par­ing to hit the coun­try’s regime with mis­sile strikes, and is­sued a rare re­buke to Moscow for back­ing Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad. “Get ready Rus­sia, be­cause they will be com­ing, nice, new, and ‘smart,’” the pres­i­dent tweeted, af­ter Rus­sian of­fi­cials said their forces would shoot down any in­com­ing mis­siles. “You shouldn’t be part­ners with a Gas Killing An­i­mal.” Trump can­celed a planned trip to Peru for the Sum­mit of the Amer­i­cas so he could over­see the U.S. re­sponse to the attack. Wit­nesses said at least 70 peo­ple were killed and hun­dreds in­jured af­ter Syr­ian gov­ern­ment he­li­copters dropped bar­rel bombs filled with poi­son gas on the rebel-held en­clave of Douma, a sub­urb of Da­m­as­cus. Pho­tos and videos of the aftermath show life­less vic­tims, in­clud­ing many women and chil­dren, with foam­ing mouths, blue lips, and open eyes. “Pres­i­dent Putin, Rus­sia, and Iran are re­spon­si­ble for back­ing An­i­mal As­sad,” Trump tweeted. “Big price to pay.” France and the U.K. said they would sup­port U.S. mil­i­tary ac­tion.

The attack came al­most a year af­ter the As­sad regime killed more than 90 peo­ple in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun with the nerve gas sarin. The U.S. fired 59 cruise mis­siles at a Syr­ian air base in re­sponse, but Trump was re­port­edly weigh­ing a more ro­bust strike this time. “Last year was about send­ing a sig­nal,” said re­tired U.S. Adm. James Stavridis. “This year it’s about de­stroy­ing ac­tual Syr­ian ca­pa­bil­ity.” Rus­sia, which ve­toed a U.S.-crafted United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion to in­ves­ti­gate the Douma attack, in­sisted there was no ev­i­dence of chem­i­cal-weapons use. A Krem­lin spokesman warned that U.S. mil­i­tary ac­tion “could sig­nif­i­cantly desta­bi­lize the al­ready frag­ile sit­u­a­tion in the re­gion.”

Days be­fore the lat­est chem­i­cal-weapons attack, Trump or­dered his na­tional se­cu­rity team to with­draw all 2,000 U.S. troops de­ployed in Syria by the fall. The pres­i­dent re­port­edly wanted the pull­out to be im­me­di­ate, but aban­doned the plan in the face of unan­i­mous op­po­si­tion from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pen­tagon, the State De­part­ment, and the in­tel­li­gence community.

What the ed­i­to­ri­als said

It’s heart­en­ing to see Trump make a “rare crit­i­cism” of Putin, said the Los An­ge­les Times. But he has to be care­ful of mis­sion creep in Syria. The ob­jec­tive should be to “pun­ish As­sad for vi­o­lat­ing an in­ter­na­tional norm,” not to oust the dic­ta­tor or in­ter­fere fur­ther in the coun­try’s bloody seven-year civil war. The U.S. should pro­vide a pro­por­tional re­sponse to the attack, and keep our troops in the coun­try only long enough to elim­i­nate any re­main­ing ISIS mil­i­tants—not a day longer.

What next?

Aban­don­ing Syria is a ter­ri­ble idea, said the New York Post. It would al­low As­sad’s Ira­nian spon­sors to “gain con­trol of the en­tire North­ern Mid­dle East”—from Le­banon through Syria and Iraq— and Tur­key to pur­sue its “in­sane vendetta” against the Syr­ian Kur­dish forces that helped us beat ISIS. Rather than just bomb a few air­fields in re­sponse to Douma, Trump should also de­clare a nofly zone over east­ern Syria. That would check Iran’s am­bi­tions, “cre­ate a refuge for those saved from ISIS and As­sad,” and give the U.S. a say in de­ter­min­ing the fate of the coun­try.

What the colum­nists said

Trump es­sen­tially has “three bad op­tions” on Syria, said Max Fisher in The New York Times. Lim­ited strikes won’t change As­sad’s cal­cu­lus in the long term, be­cause they don’t threaten his “per­sonal and na­tional sur­vival.” Arm­ing and pro­tect­ing antigov­ern­ment rebels will merely en­cour­age Moscow and Tehran to “es­ca­late in turn.” And a full-scale in­ter­ven­tion could trig­ger a di­rect mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion with nu­clear-armed Rus­sia.

“It’s time to give Trump some credit on Rus­sia,” said Matt Lewis in TheDai­lyBeast.com. His much-needed re­buke of Putin came only days af­ter his ad­min­is­tra­tion im­posed pun­ish­ing new sanc­tions on Putin-al­lied Rus­sian oli­garchs and their busi­nesses— penal­ties that sent the Rus­sian stock mar­ket crash­ing. The pres­i­dent ap­pears to have fi­nally re­al­ized that in the con­text of Syria, his “soft at­ti­tude to­ward Rus­sia” is in­com­pat­i­ble with his “hos­til­ity to Iran,” said Jonathan Tobin in Na­tion­alRe­view.com. The big ques­tion now is whether he is “pre­pared to aban­don” his long-held be­lief that he can fos­ter bet­ter re­la­tions with Putin.

Don’t count on it, said Chris Cil­lizza in CNN.com. An hour af­ter Trump’s “Get ready Rus­sia” tweet, the pres­i­dent lamented that there was “no rea­son” for the poor re­la­tion­ship be­tween the U.S. and Rus­sia and that all coun­tries should “work to­gether.” It’s also worth re­mem­ber­ing that Trump re­peat­edly lam­basted Pres­i­dent Obama for an­nounc­ing mil­i­tary strate­gies in ad­vance— yet here he is “pre­view­ing ac­tual mis­sile launches.” The hypocrisy is stag­ger­ing. The de­layed de­ci­sion on re­tal­ia­tory mea­sures has given Rus­sia and Syria plenty of time to pre­pare, said in The Wall Street Jour­nal. The Syr­ian mil­i­tary has “put its air de­fense sys­tems on high alert,” and moved some fighter jets away from air bases near Da­m­as­cus—which are thought to be high on the Pen­tagon’s tar­get list—and sta­tioned them at a Rus­sian-op­er­ated air base. Ira­nian troops and other al­lied mili­tias have also been re­de­ployed around the coun­try. Mean­while the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons is send­ing a fact-find­ing mis­sion to Douma, with the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment’s per­mis­sion. But U.S. of­fi­cials fear that es­sen­tial ev­i­dence has likely al­ready “been tam­pered with.”

This is the prob­lem with Trump’s for­eign pol­icy, said Zack Beauchamp in Vox.com—it’s com­pletely “in­co­her­ent.” One mo­ment he boasts about his vic­tory over ISIS, the next he or­ders U.S. troops out of Syria be­fore the anti-ISIS oper­a­tion is com­plete. He’s made sim­i­larly con­tra­dic­tory moves on al­most ev­ery ma­jor global is­sue: North Korea, Rus­sia, Chi­nese trade. As a re­sult, no one knows when to take the pres­i­dent’s words se­ri­ously, and when to dis­miss them as blus­ter. That could lead to “a very se­ri­ous mess—in Syria or else­where.”

Young vic­tims of As­sad’s chem­i­cal-weapons at­tack in Douma

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