The chemical weapons airstrike in Syria on April 4, which killed some 80 civilians and which the West blames on the government of Bashar al-Assad, helped focus the Trump administration on the complexities of the situation over there. This wasn’t news to anyone who has been following the past six years of bloody, merciless civil war in that painfully broken state.
Upon learning of the chemical attack, President Donald Trump reacted with words that were hauntingly reminiscent of his predecessor: “What happened … is unacceptable to me. … It crossed a lot of lines for me.” And this was so, even though the attack did not involve the Islamic State group or the “radical Islamic terrorism” that the president has called out by name and denounced. The chemical attack involved Assad, the man who the administration signaled a very short time ago that it was more than happy to keep in power.
The administration’s prompt decision to strike back with 59 American Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian air base from which the chemical attacks originated is a welcome change after the Obama administration’s tendency to make threats but not back them up. And the move gave credence to the statements of Ambassador Nikki Haley, who, while holding photos of the victims of the chemical weapon attack, told the U.N. Security Council that she blames Russia and Iran as the enablers of Assad’s vengeful regime. “The truth is that Assad, Russia and Iran have no interest in peace,” she said. “The illegitimate Syrian government, led by a man with no conscience, has committed untold atrocities against his people for six years.”
The administration has drawn the correct conclusions, and with last week’s missile strike from U.S. warships in the region, appears to have reacted in a targeted, limited and successful way. Now, however, comes an even greater challenge: Does Trump have the ability to navigate the complex diplomatic issues that are inevitably presented when this kind of military intervention is pursued?
Trump knows that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants Assad to stay in power. Can the great dealmaker orchestrate a resolution in Syria that destroys the Islamic State, punishes the horrific crimes of Assad, and protects the opaque and increasingly scrutinized relationship between Trump and his team, and Putin and Russia?
Trump has said that he doesn’t want to tip his hand to the Syrians. We get that. But what are his realistic political or military options moving forward?
After the American attack, crisis still looms in Syria. Something more needs to be done. The American people and our country’s allies and friends around the world are waiting to see how the president will continue to act in his first real international test. Above all, Trump needs to show that he can lead in crisis, and not just react. We wish him success.