The President of the United States, who once tweeted this...
... on Wednesday could be found saying this, in response to another Syrian chemical weapons attack that was almost certainly carried out by the government of Bashar al-Assad ...
... and had his spokesperson Sean Spicer throw in this to boot:
And just like that, the America First president, who as far as I can tell still hasn't used the words "human rights" in a sentence, became a humanitarian interventionist. You know the type: the analyst who argues that if we just apply a little more military pressure to the same problem, it will convince a bad actor to stop doing bad things. This was the sort of foreign policy establishment thinking that Donald Trump railed against on the campaign trail.
Why does he suddenly care about Syrian civilians?
The biggest surprise, honestly, is that Trump reacted the way he did at all. He seemed genuinely shocked by this incident. But why this one? Trump seems to have no problem with extrajudicial killings when other leaders do them. He seemed to have no problem with all the other people Assad had killed. He just had a warm meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has a plenty questionable human rights record. A few days ago, his Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley could be found saying that removing Assad was not a priority. In fact, prior to this week, there was widespread speculation that Trump might actually join Russia to help Assad crush the rebels. A far more predictable response from Trump would have been to obfuscate, imply the videos were faked, suggest that the victims were terrorists who had it coming, etc. ... exactly what the Russians were doing.
Three possible explanations come to mind for the sudden about-face.
1. He was genuinely moved by the videos. They are deeply disturbing — I'm not even going to link to them — so this is possible. But it seems unlikely. After all, without putting too fine a point on it, I have yet to see this president show the slightest empathy towards anyone to whom he is not related by blood or marriage. It just doesn't seem his style.
2. He took this personally. This was not just a heinous attack on innocent civilians, it was a serious inconvenience to Trump's policies towards Russia, the Middle East, and refugees. Trump seems to respond reflexively to either flattery or insult. The fact that Assad would do this to him is what makes it particularly unacceptable in Trump's mind.
3. The effects of the attack were caught on video. Trump is particularly attuned to popular reaction to media images. My most likely theory is that he recognized that Americans would be outraged by what they were seeing, and jumped out ahead of that outrage. The videos humanized a war with inhuman statistics — hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced. A few specific Syrian children being gassed is horrifying, even to those who would deny them refuge in the United States.
So now what?
This evening the Washington Post reported that Trump was considering military action against the Assad regime. This means that Trump is now caught in the same trap that Barack Obama was after the "red line" episode. Any action taken against Assad will be deeply destabilizing to both Syria and international peace, given the direct support for the regime by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Overthrowing Assad would leave complete anarchy and a clearer field for Islamic State and others, and would be ruinous for the ethnic and religious minorities that support the regime and depend on it for protection. But anything short of overthrowing Assad will be ineffective given the nature of the regime and its inherent inability to accept compromise, political transition, or free elections. There are no good options here. Also, escalation is highly likely. Here's Micah Zenko:
Obama's solution was to go to Congress to get permission for airstrikes that he admitted at the time would not change the political calculus, get rebuffed, and then settle for the Russia-orchestrated deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria... which, as it turns out, apparently did not remove all of them.
Trump's next step is unclear. If he does nothing, he will be pilloried by the "do something" crowd. To wit:
But if he actually does something, that could easily be worse. There's a high risk of retaliation by Iran against American forces in Iraq and a serious risk of direct conflict with Russia. Even if these things don't happen, weakening the Syrian government means weakening the strongest actor left in the field, which likely prolongs the war and gets even more people killed. What's more, Russia and Iran have stood by Assad as he has done this and worse for years. Will Rex Tillerson be able to convince them to abandon their longtime ally? Why should they? Whatever replaces him will be no friend to Moscow or Tehran.
It is always possible that some decisive action could work, or at least compel the regime to find other ways of killing its citizens besides chemical weapons. But the most likely outcome is that Washington retains enough hostility to Assad to not accept him as legitimate, but not enough to do what is necessary to remove him. And the war will continue, probably for the rest of Trump's presidency, and possibly beyond.