Will Assad's renewed atrocities galvanise Trump, where Obama failed?

Will Assad's renewed atrocities galvanise Trump, where Obama failed?
6 min read
06 Apr, 2017
Comment: Despite his promises, Obama failed to act when Assad 'crossed the red line'. Will the Syrian regime's chemical massacre push Trump into action? asks Kyle Orton.
Samples from the affected area are being compared to the chemical weapons Assad previously surrendered[Anadolu]

President Donald Trump is not known for his ideological and political constancy, but he came into office having actually been relatively consistent in his rhetoric on Syria.

For Trump, the major focus was on eliminating the Islamic State (IS); the Kurdish PKK was considered the most reliable ally in that endeavor, Russia was seen as a potential ally, and the rebellion was regarded as opaque, incapable, and probably worse than the dictator Bashar al-Assad.

In short, Trump's policy appeared to be the Barack Obama policy without the rhetorical mask. With the chemical attack by the pro-Assad coalition on Tuesday, perhaps this is about to change.

The most recent attack

At about 6:30 AM on 4 April, warplanes dropped chemical munitions on the small town of Khan Sheikhun. Despite the misinformation put out by Assad and the governments of Russia and Iran, the rebellion does not have an air force; nor does al-Qaeda, nor does IS.

Even in their conspiracy theories - involving the striking of insurgent munitions posts that released toxic chemicals - the pro-Assad coalition was admitting to an aerial bombardment at just the moment the poison gas was dropped on Khan Sheikhun.

Independent providers of medical services and journalists at the scene confirmed that those killed and wounded displayed symptoms of exposure to nerve agent, as did first-responders.

If the US once again does nothing, it will be a final confirmation that there is nothing that will alter the course charted by the Obama administration

The Turkish government says autopsies of the slain prove chemical weapons of mass destruction (CWMD) were used. Soil and biological samples from the affected area are now in the hands of western intelligence and soon a comparison will be made to the stockpiles of CWMD the Assad regime surrendered to get itself off the hook after its last major WMD attack in 2013. (Assad was supposed to have surrendered all WMD in the deal that spared him military retribution last time.)

US intelligence is already convinced that the Assad regime is responsible for this atrocity, and that Damascus used Sarin. And the US has not been coy about this in its public messaging. President Trump minced no words on Tuesday night, decrying the "heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime" - and the "weakness and irresolution" of the Obama administration that opened the road to this latest carnage.

Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was more circumspect in his own statement, but he, too, pointed at Assad as the culprit.

On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council met. Though many regard this institution as the holder not only of international law - itself a dubious concept - but of morality, it was never intended to be this way. The Security Council is a political instrument, and after Syria that should now be obvious.

Seven double vetoes from Russia and China - uncommon before 2011 - have blocked even official condemnation of the barbarous conduct of the Assad regime as it faced down an uprising it deliberately - and quite openly - pushed into militancy and sectarianism, to create a binary choice between the dictatorship and a "terrorist takeover".

Shaming Russia

While the UN might be pointless in concrete terms, the US nonetheless made full use of the occasion as a bully pulpit. A powerful speech from US representative Nikki Haley referred to the "illegitimate Syrian government led by a man with no conscience," who had been supported at every stage by Iran.

Haley held up pictures of the children murdered in this latest incident, noting that it was at least the third gas attack this year. 

Turning to Russia, Haley denounced Moscow for using "false narratives" to deflect blame from the crimes of its client regime. Russia has made an "unconscionable choice" to shield Assad, Haley said, and therefore "cannot escape responsibility" for what has happened. Had Russia fulfilled its obligations, Assad would not even have chemical munitions to use, Haley added.

Half a million have perished inside Syria since this uprising began with peaceful protests six years ago

"We know that if nothing is done, these attacks will continue," Haley concluded. "When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action."

Later in the evening on Wednesday, President Trump said, during a sit-down meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, "I now have responsibility… and carry it very proudly," describing the chemical attack as "a terrible affront to humanity".

In a joint press conference in the Rose Garden, Trump added: "I like to think of myself as a very flexible person... If the world changes... I do change... and I'm proud of that flexibility. I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me. My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much. What happened yesterday is unacceptable to me."

The US response 

What will come of all this? Likely nothing. Half a million have perished inside Syria since this uprising began with peaceful protests six years ago. Ancient cities have been sacked and depopulated, the majority of Syrians have been displaced, and a torrent of humanity has spilled into the region and beyond into Europe, serving to polarise politics to the advantage of the Kremlin.

None of this promoted the West even to exact a price from Assad, let alone to enforce their own stated policy of removing him from office. 

Still, let it be said that Trump is indeed flexible - and unpredictable. He is also, perhaps above all, a legacy of President Obama, whose failed course Trump has vowed to correct.

Now the line is drawn by Trump: whether or not the US acts, we are in a different world after this attack

With his administration's behaviour - identifying the culprit and escalating the rhetoric - Trump is now out on a branch of his own. It was perfectly correct for the Trump administration to say that we would not be here had his predecessor lived up to his "red line".

That betrayal by Obama was described by a survivor as the most painful part of that saga. But now the line is drawn by Trump: whether or not the US acts, we are in a different world after this attack.

If the US punishes Assad, Trump will have a standing that gives him more room to move in charting the way forward.

If the US once again does nothing, it will be a final confirmation that there is nothing that will alter the course charted by the Obama administration, which accepted Assad in the presidential palace, Syria as a sphere of influence for Iran and Russia, and the extremists as the only option for those parts of the population who reject this state of affairs.

Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst and an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.

Follow him on Twitter: @KyleWOrton

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.