A chemical attack in Syria has taken over 40 lives and injured over 500, provoking an angry reaction from President Trump. Many of the victims appear to be defenseless women and children, prompting Trump to “change” his position from reluctant tolerance of Syrian intervention to…well, we don’t know yet.
The U.S. has been quick to pin responsibility for the attack on Syria’s Assad regime and its allies Russia and Iran, despite denials and counter-accusations of false flags by Islamic militant groups.
The attack took place in the Islamist held city of Douma, one of the few remaining rebel strongholds in the country, held by terrorist rebel faction Jaish al-Islam. The chemical agent has yet to be confirmed; most of the victims are thought to have suffered from a chlorine substance, though some show signs of a possible separate nerve poison.
Trump Changes his Mind
During the run-up to the 2016 election, President Trump campaigned to bring American troops back home, criticizing previous administrations for wasting funds and lives on interminable interventionist wars in the Middle East. While his administration has continued to wage war against ISIS, Trump has been reluctant to get further involved in the region, avoiding direct conflict with foreign governments. The exception being, of course, the April 2017 missile strike against a Syrian air base, also in response to a chemical attack. A year later almost to the day, Trump may again be preparing to take the U.S. into a role in the ongoing Syrian civil war.
In a seemingly unscripted remark at an Ohio speech last week, Trump said that U.S. troops would withdraw from Syria “very soon” and that the U.S. would “let the other people take care of it [remnant ISIS forces] now.”
His statements were in direct contrast to the Department of Defense, which had reinforced its intention to “outlast” ISIS in the region, only hours previously. The White House soon backtracked on Trump’s speech after a scramble in which the president was persuaded by advisors, including Secretary of Defense General Mattis, to keep U.S. forces stationed in Syria indefinitely. A senior official reportedly told NBC News that Trump “wasn’t thrilled about it, to say the least.”
Days later, Trump is back on the bandwagon, responding in outraged horror at the chemical attack on civilians. “It crossed a lot of lines for me,” he said. “I will tell you, what happened yesterday is unacceptable to me.” He added:
“I do change. I am flexible. I am proud of that flexibility. I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me… that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”
Trump condemned Assad’s allies, tweeting that “President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay.”
The State Department called on Russia to end its support of Assad; Moscow responded with contempt, calling the attack “fake news.”
A Terrorist Act?
The Assad regime has denied committing the attack, placing the blame instead on terrorist group Jaish al-Islam as well as foreign governments including Saudi Arabia.
SANA, the Syrian state news agency, accused the House of Saud of creating and backing Jaish al-Islam, “falling back on the chemical fabrications and shedding crocodile tears” in response to recent government victories in the region.
Assad opponents within Syria have accused the regime of launching the chemical attack as revenge for terrorist attacks in Damascus in breach of a ceasefire, and as part of a campaign to close in on Douma; the Syrian government retorted that their army doesn’t need to use chemicals materials to further its already “swift and determined advance.”
A few weeks ago, the Russian Ministry of Defense predicted that militants were preparing to launch a false-flag chemical attack, to be blamed on Assad’s regime. RT, Russia’s state news outlet, reported in March that Moscow had received a tip-off that terrorist groups in the region were in possession of chemicals weapons, quoting Major-General Yuri Yevtushenko as saying that terrorists:
“Could use those preparations to spray chemical agents in residential areas, which will lead to a large number of casualties among civilians…The mass poisoning of civilians will be used to accuse the government troops of the use of chemical weapons against peaceful citizens.”
A day later, they reported that more than 40 tons of poisonous substances had been discovered in territory seized from rebels.
Bashar al-Assad is undoubtedly a tyrant, guilty of many human rights violations against his own people, and certainly, the U.S. has no reason to trust Russia. But in a country filled with militant extremists, it does raise questions as to why the blame automatically falls on the Syrian government. Can we really take that for granted, and should the U.S. military react on the assumption?