Trump's flip-flop on Syria

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India Apr 06, 2017, 03.02 PM(IST) Written By: Jeff Halperin

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Croatian newspaper Vecernji List in Damascus, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on April 6, 2017. Photograph:( Reuters )

While his supporters love Donald Trump for his allegedly blunt and no-nonsense speech, President Trump changes his public positions a lot. This is true about US military intervention in Syria. As a result, it's impossible to know what the US is poised to do in response to the horrific news that Assad has again attacked his people with chemical gas.

Today, Trump blames President Obama for not enforcing his own "red line". In 2013--Obama had said that the county would intervene militarily in Syria in the event of a chemical attack against the civilian population. Then, when there was just such an attack, Obama balked. Instead, Obama made a deal between he and Putin, to have Assad admit he did in fact have chemical weapons, and to have them inspected and seized. But there was no military intervention in August and September 2013. 

Whether you think the US should or should not have intervened in August 2013, it's reasonable to think Obama looked weak for backing down against Assad from his own ultimatum. 

But in 2013, Trump also made at least 10 statements via Twitter between June 15 and September 9 clearly and uniformly opposing any US military intervention in Syria. Here is a sample:


While this Tweet carries some hostility towards Obama (Trump never misses an opportunity to blame Obama), both men agreed that the US Army should not have entered Syria.

Yet here is the White House statement in response to the latest chemical attack in Syria:

Today's chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration's weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a "red line" against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.

What does this mean? Criticising Obama for issuing an ultimatum he didn't live up to is fair, but Trump appears to be blaming Obama for "then d[oing] nothing". This suggests that Trump believes now that Obama should have intervened then in Syria.

If so, this is Trump reversing his prior position. Now he is the president, not a guy on Twitter, and his precise position matters. 

In trying to glean what his position is, the statement says the attack "cannot be ignored", but does not say what the response will be. So what will the US do now under Trump?

On one hand, Trump's "America First" policy clearly opposes US militarily intervention. Either they will anyway, in opposition to both President Trump's previous stance and his current foreign policy. Or, like Obama, he will not.

There is one major difference between Trump and Obama though: Recently, both UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have made statements saying they could imagine a Syria with Bashar al-Assad in power after the war. This is in stark contrast to Obama, and pretty much every other country.

Except Russia, who has "provided the military might behind Assad's grip on the country, which plunged into civil war six years ago," as CNN has it. 

Yesterday Russia mirrored Trump, saying that former US President Barack Obama's threat of military action if a "red line" was crossed and chemical weapons were used in Syria had provoked such attacks. This overlap in policy and in speech between the two countries should strike all as jarring and demanding explanation. After all, Trump is currently under FBI investigation for his and his administration's links to Russia.

But ignoring the Trump-Russia angle for now, it's not clear why Trump's White House could envision a Syria led by Assad after the latter killed hundreds, if not thousands, with Sarin gas in 2013, but is in another league of outrage after Assad's most recent chemical attack.

Trump has said, "My attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much...You're now talking about a whole different level." Why is it on a "whole different level", when Assad has done the exact same thing in 2013, but killing even more people? Why did this chemical attack cross "many, many lines", but not the first?

Ultimately, those trying to judge Trump by his words will run into the infuriating fact that they cannot--his words change too much and too often. Even Trump's own administration advises people not to take the words of the president literally, but, instead, symbolically. As if the president is not a man, but a poem.

Those inclined to take Trump at his word, who believe him when he says the US is genuinely opposed to military intervention the way "America First" suggests, must explain Trump's call to increase US military spending by $50 billion and the US ramping up its attacks in Yemen.

It's early in his presidency, but given his reversals on Syria, and the outlandish and baseless accusations and statements he has made elsewhere, the only way to learn what Donald Trump will actually do next is to wait.

But he cannot keep blaming Barack Obama forever.