Just days after it suggested that the world would have to get used to the idea of President Bashar al-Assad as a negotiating partner in Syria, the Trump administration abruptly switched direction on April 6. As images of the aftermath of an apparent nerve-gas attack on civilians in rebel-held Idlib province generated outrage around the world, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that “with the acts that he has taken, it will seem that there would be no role for [Mr. Assad] to govern the Syrian people.” Later that evening the United States launched a punitive strike on the Syrian air base where it alleged the chemical weapons attack originated.
President Donald J. Trump had given the go-ahead for a barrage of cruise missiles, careful to avoid the possibility of Russian casualties, who had been forewarned. The facility was badly damaged; the Syrian government reports the deaths of nine civilians, including four children, when projectiles hit the base and nearby villages. Others were injured.
Two prominent Catholic leaders in Syria criticized the U.S. missile strikes. Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph Younan described the strike as an act of aggression. He told Catholic News Service: “It is a shame that the United States administration didn't wait until an honest United Nations investigation was thoroughly made.”
“Stunning” is how Mr. Telhami describes the president’s turnaround on the Assad regime.
Global media “and the supremacist policy of the USA just want the killing and destroying conflict in Syria to continue, and this primarily to kill whatever attempt to resolve the bloody crisis,” Patriarch Younan added.
Bishop Georges Khazen, who serves Latin-rite Catholics in Aleppo, told the Rome-based Fides news agency that he was baffled by “the speed with which it was decided and carried out, without any adequate investigation into the tragic massacre with chemical weapons which took place in Idlib province.”
He said the attack “opens new disturbing scenarios for all.”
The U.N. children's agency reports that at least 27 children were among the more than 80 people killed in the suspected chemical attack in northern Syria. UNICEF said another 546 people, including many children, were wounded in Tuesday's attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, and that casualty figures are expected to rise.
The U.S. strike is likely to only briefly hold back the Assad regime from the next outrage. The morning after the missile attack, in fact, Russian officials quickly recommitted the Russian Federation to its ally in Syria, accusing the United States of violating international law and promising to repair the demolished air facility and to help the Assad regime beef up Syria’s air-defense capabilities.
Explaining his about-face on Syria to the nation, Mr. Trump said: “Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.
“No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” the president said.
The president’s altered tone in this brief address was noted by a number of media commentators, especially a rhetorical shift appended to the usual end-of-statement boilerplate “God bless America”—the words “and the entire world.”
Even if “it turns out to be the right step,” he said, this is "an impulsive war decision.”
Shibley Telhami does not believe the punitive strike was a good idea—he is fundamentally opposed to unilateral action even against war crimes. But Mr. Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md., said he was more concerned about the decision-making process that led up to the U.S. attack.
“One set of questions I’m thinking about is the decision-making here, how an act of war decision is made [in the Trump White House] and the other set of questions concerns the possible consequences with Syria” in the aftermath of the cruise missile attack.
“To be honest the first [set of questions] bothers me a lot more.”
“Stunning” is how Mr. Telhami describes the president’s turnaround on the Assad regime. “We’re in a situation where the president changes his mind within 24 hours, first showing acceptance or at least being tolerant of a regime that has already killed hundreds of thousands of people whether through chemical or conventional weapons,” he said.
“Suddenly after one episode with a few dozen deaths, he shifts completely and goes against everything he said before and does it without any public deliberation or without any consultation with Congress, without even notifying Congress beforehand,” he added, his voice rising.
Even if “it turns out to be the right step,” he said, this is "an impulsive war decision.”
Acts of war, he said, are “something that matters to all of us.”
“We need to have a national debate on these things; it’s not a decision for the president to make in the dead of night.” Especially a president, he added, “who has been as unstable in the way he makes decisions as this.”
The strike may be in violation of international law, according to Mr. Telhami, and defies the U.S. Constitution, which reserves war powers to Congress, albeit a conceit observed more often in the breach than otherwise in recent decades. Mr. Telhami wonders what the decision may say about how the Trump administration would approach other flashpoints around the world as tensions rise with North Korea and a confrontation with China looms over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The decision to strike back at the Assad regime because of the apparent but still unconfirmed use of sarin gas in the Idlib attack was supported by many across the aisles of Congress, though some members complained the president should have brought the matter to Congress for approval before ordering the U.S. military into action. Regional powers Saudi Arabia and Israel also applauded the move, as did al-Qaeda connected rebel factions in Syria via Twitter accounts.
Mr. Assad is unlikely to return to ceasefire negotiations now because he would seem to be bowing to U.S. pressure.
Mr. Telhami wonders what is the strategy for ending the conflict and extricating U.S. forces in Syria, suggesting that if the president has not got a plan, he should put a team together immediately to work on one. As far as the hopes of bringing over six years of conflict to an end in Syria, Mr. Telhami considers the U.S. intervention a setback.
He said Mr. Assad is unlikely to return to ceasefire negotiations now because he would seem to be bowing to U.S. pressure. In the near term, supported by enhanced Russian air defenses, the anti-ISIS campaign being conducted by U.S. forces will become more complicated and riskier for U.S. pilots. In response to the U.S. cruise missile strike, the Russian military has abandoned an agreement to coordinate missions over Syria with their U.S. counterparts, increasing the likelihood of a dangerous collision between the world’s largest nuclear-armed powers.
But beyond the greater risks in the skies over Syria, Mr. Telhami worries that the United States now has no relationship with any party in the Syrian civil war willing to work with it to conclude some kind of cessation of hostilities. Faced with an obdurate Assad regime, would the Trump administration accept withdrawal from the conflict and the U.S. weakness that would project or double down with an escalation of hostilities, a “slippery slope to a conflict nobody wants,” said Mr. Telhami. Worst among a line-up of unintended consequences, how might Russia react if Russian casualties occur in a future U.S. strike? How might the United States react if Russian defenses take down an American aircraft?
Worst among a line-up of unintended consequences, how might Russia react if Russian casualties occur in a future U.S. strike?
Mr. Assad already believes he can complete an outright military victory over rebel forces, some of which have been haphazardly supported by the United States. With greater support from Russia in the aftermath of the U.S. intervention, he may become more convinced the regime can prevail. The United States, of course, cannot reach out to Iran or its surrogate force in Syria, Hezbollah, toward an end to the violence. Mr. Telhami argues that Russia had been the only viable partner in both a campaign to diminish ISIS in Syria and to reach some kind of peace.
The loss of one innocent life is too many, Mr. Telhami said, and the suffering of the people of Idlib on April 4 was hard to watch and contemplate. The use of chemical weapons “is a horrible thing” and shocking to know that President Assad is capable of doing this to his own people.
But hundreds have died each week during the six years of conflict in Syria, he pointed out, and the world has done little to stop it. The United States itself, he said, may have been responsible for an even greater death toll in a bombing attack in Iraq on March 17.
According to Mr. Telhami, one of the few hard things Mr. Trump had seemed to have understood about the Syrian conflict had been the inevitability of seriously engaging with the Russians about finding a way to end it.
“If you want a solution in Syria you are going to have to work with Russia,” he said, pointing out that the Assad regime remained a strong ally and a bulwark against radical Islam, perceived as a major threat in Moscow. With air and naval facilities in Syria, Mr. Telhami believes that the Russians have no intention of walking away from their relationship with Mr. Assad whatever the Trump administration says or however much it is condemned by global opinion. “I remain of the opinion,” he said, “that of all the choices we have in Syria to have an impact on bringing about some kind of settlement that is acceptable and in harmony with U.S. interests, the United States has no choice but to work with Russia.”
What the Trump administration should have been focusing on, he said, was using the Idlib horror to put even more pressure on the Russians to bring Assad to the peace table to end the conflict. That may have been about the only positive outcome that could have emerged from the Idlib attack. Now that option is off the table; which options are left open today is anybody’s guess.