It’s always difficult to pinpoint the moment in which a policy changes, but yesterday’s horrific chemical weapons attack in Idlib appears to signal a shift in how the Trump administration may view its options in the conflict.
The attack, which has already killed more than 100 people and injured another 400, including a great number of children, was captured in a vast series of images and videos that is horrifying to comprehend.
As recently as last week, U.S. officials were pushing the “defeat ISIS or bust” line of argument, which entailed suggestions they were open to greater cooperation with PYD rebels (seen as a threat to Turkey’s security), deals with Russia, and even possibly allowing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to remain in power. On March 31, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said, “With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.”
A day earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had similarly suggested a hands-off approach: “I think the… longer term status of president Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” Many, including Sen. Marco Rubio, believe that these kinds of statements are received as clear signals by Damascus that their range of free action has been expanded.
Now, there’s a different reality.
President Trump was visibly disturbed by the Idlib attack in a press conference today, standing alongside King Abdullah of Jordan.
“It’s very, very possible, and I will tell you it has already happened, that my attitude toward Syria and Assad, has changed very much,” the President said, commenting that the deaths of “innocent children, innocent babies, little babies” crossed many red lines.
These frank statements contrast with the President’s past position. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal following the election, he said, “I’ve had an opposite view of many people regarding Syria,” suggesting that if you attack Assad, you end up fighting Russia. The focus, the President said, should be on defeating ISIS no matter who helps to do it.
But this chemical weapons attack may end up being an own goal for Assad. There was uniform message discipline on behalf of U.S. officials today, and it was not conciliatory toward Russia’s role in enabling this genocide. Much attention has been given to the powerful comments by US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.
“Time and time again Russia uses the same false narrative to deflect attention from their allies in Damascus. How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” Haley asked before the UN, suggesting Washington would take action if the UN did not. “The U.S. sees yesterday’s attack as a disgrace at the highest level — an assurance that humanity means nothing to the Syrian government.”
There is no known tie to the Syria events, but today President Trump also dismissed his strategic advisor Steve Bannon from his seat at the National Security Council.
So, in light of the ongoing distraction of congressional and FBI investigations into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, what does this horrific war crime mean for Putin’s chances to strike a deal in Syria?
A couple of weeks ago we wrote on this blog that President Vladimir Putin still had a lot to be happy about given events in the United States – sure, it had become highly unlikely that any agreement could be reached to lift sanctions in this poisoned environment, but at the very least, support for NATO had been weakened and infighting between the executive and intelligence agencies benefits Russia.
Now, with Assad’s second barbaric gas attack against his own people, Putin’s chance at striking the grand bargain with the Trump administration now looks more remote than ever. In the coming weeks, the President’s National Security Council will have to undertake a serious reassessment of its options, its allies, and its strategies to achieve peace in Syria – and that outcome can no longer include the presence of Bashar al-Assad.