Donald Trump’s professed change of mind about Syria and its president Bashar al-Assad – and his hints of possible punitive action in response to Tuesday’s chemical attack – have underlined his administration’s volatility on the world stage.
The suggestion that the US could intervene in the conflict would be a radical departure from the exclusively “America first” approach that has hitherto defined Trump’s policy. In Syria, that meant focusing exclusively on Islamic State (Isis) and other extremists, and putting off dealing with the country’s political transition.
“I don’t like Assad at all,’’ Trump declared in a presidential debate last October. “But Assad is killing Isis. Russia is killing Isis and Iran is killing Isis.”
Only a few days ago, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, declared: “our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out”. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had argued the Syrian president’s future “will be decided by the Syrian people”, ignoring the fact that many of those people were under relentless bombardment by Assad and unable to voice an opinion.
Even more confounding was Trump’s declaration that the Idlib gas attack crossed “many, many lines – beyond a red line”. The comment came only hours after the president had lambasted Barack Obama for laying down the original red line on Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2012 and then not attacking when the line was crossed in August 2013.
Trump has consistently argued that the failure to deliver on the “red line” threat projected US weakness. But it was far from clear on Wednesday what action his own administration would take now that Assad had crossed “many, many lines”….
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