In the waning months of last year’s campaign, President Trump was talking up a dramatic shift in US policy in Syria, a move away from regime change and a focus on fighting ISIS, along with a rapprochement deal with Russia. A little over two months after the inauguration and with little to show for the “change,” officials are back to Obama era hostility toward the Syrians.
A bombing attack in northwest Syria yesterday, allegedly a chemical weapons attack, is serving as the official justification for the narrative change, with President Trump insisting Syria had “crossed many lines,” and insisting that his position on Syria has changed, adding that “I now have responsibility when it comes to Syria.”
US, British, and French diplomats are all pushing for UN action against Syria now, though a Russian veto at the Security Council is assured, with Russian officials saying the resolution is based on “fake information.” US officials are already looking beyond the UN and threatening unilateral action.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley insisted the UN has “consistently” failed to act against Syria, and insisted that states would as a result be compelled to act unilaterally without UN authorization. Haley added that Syria’s “illegitimate government” was committing “untold atrocities.”
All of this sounds remarkably familiar to the statements by US officials when the Obama Administration was planning to attack Syria, and while it’s not clear President Trump is willing to risk war with Russia by launching such an operation, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s warning that Russia needs to reconsider its continued support for Syria, suggesting that at the very least the administration is fine with continuing to raise tensions with Russia over the matter.
The gas attack incident, however, still has a lot of questions, with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons still just starting to probe the incident, and is well short of assigning responsibility. US officials, along with British and French officials, immediately had a complete narrative fitting with their interest in moving against Syria, and are refusing to consider any possibility that runs counter to that, including Russia’s suggestion that a conventional air strike had caused a leak in a rebel chemical cache.
The shift in US policy, however, really began before the alleged gas attack even took place, as in the days ahead of it, officials were again demanding Assad’s ouster, and rebel officials were reporting that the previously halted CIA arms shipments had been resumed recently.
Obviously, all of the same problems with the US moving against Syria militarily, which Trump pointed out in presidential debates, are still problems, and that may ultimately deter an American attack. Either way, the Trump Administration is looking to rebrand their official stance as a hostile one, and one which is likely to please other NATO members, who see it as a chance to forestall any normalization of US-Russia ties.