On April 7, 2017, the U.S. armed forces fired 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase to punish Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons against his own citizens. The Syrian president reportedly celebrated the one-year anniversary of the strike on Saturday by ordering another attack with chemical weapons that opposition activists said killed dozens of people in the city of Douma. This appears to be at least the eighth such attack by Assad this year – and the most brazen. Having seen that the United States would not react to his repeated violations of international laws, Assad has intensified his use of weapons of mass destruction.
The latest atrocity reveals as hollow much of the praise for President Donald Trump’s 2017 strike. That applause came not only from his sycophants (”We’re proud of you,” radio host Mark Levin told the president) but also from critics bending over backward to appear fair. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for example, said in a joint statement: “Unlike the previous administration, President Trump confronted a pivotal moment in Syria and took action. For that, he deserves the support of the American people.”
I, too, supported the strike, but I doubted it would amount to much. As I wrote at the time: “If Trump is interested in truly ‘decisive’ action in Syria, he will need to go a whole lot further. What is required is a comprehensive diplomatic-military plan to end a six-year civil war that has inflicted so much human suffering and empowered so many extremist groups.”
Needless to say, no such plan was ever forthcoming from the Trump administration. The administration is, in fact, a black hole for all plans. In lieu of strategy, it is governed entirely by presidential spasms and screeds.
Since taking a victory lap for his cruise-missile strike, Trump has left Assad, along with his Russian and Iranian backers, undisturbed to continue their meticulous work of mass murder. Trump even discontinued support for rebel groups fighting Assad and instead focused narrowly on the goal of eradicating the Islamic State. Now, with the finish line in sight, Trump appears to have set a deadline of October for the Defense Department to pull our troops out - even though the Pentagon, State Department, CIA, Israel and the Arab states are all telling him that this would be a monumental mistake. A premature departure will risk the success of the anti-Islamic State campaign and hand eastern Syria to Assad and his patrons.
Trump’s is the second presidency in a row that has made a hash of policy toward Syria, allowing the country to become, in retired Gen. David Petraeus’ words, a “geopolitical Chernobyl” spewing refugees and terrorists across the world. President Barack Obama committed rhetorically to getting rid of Assad but refused to do anything serious to achieve that result. In 2013, Obama set a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons - and then refused to enforce it. Instead, he reached a Moscow-brokered deal under which Assad claimed to have rid himself of all his chemical weapons. Only he hadn’t.
Trump was a vitriolic critic of Obama’s polices - and then proceeded to imitate them. Back in 2013, Trump tweeted: “AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA - IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!” Four years later, Trump attacked Syria, afterward reverting to his original isolationist position.
Trump also repeatedly warned against revealing our military plans to the enemy. Again in 2013, he tweeted: “The great GENERALS MacArthur and Patton, real leaders and fighters, are spinning in their graves as we give Syria info & time to prepare.” Now he is telegraphing to our enemies that we are preparing to leave Syria - an assurance that no doubt has emboldened Assad to step up his use of chemical weapons.
On Sunday, Trump was blasting Obama for failing to enforce “his stated Red Line In the Sand” - i.e., doing what Trump advised him to do in 2013 - and fulminating against “Animal Assad.” Perhaps the president once again will lob a few cruise missiles. Military retaliation would be well-warranted, because it’s important to maintain an international norm against weapons of mass destruction. But it won’t amount to a serious Syria policy. As I’ve been arguing in recent weeks, the best policy for the United States, now that most of the moderate opposition has been defeated, is to support the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab militia that holds roughly one third of Syria’s territory. But that would require the kind of sustained commitment in the Middle East that Trump is congenitally allergic to.
On March 29, the president said: “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.” That’s precisely what the “other people” are doing. The result: another grotesque chemical-weapons attack that reveals the barbarism of the Russian, Iranian and Syrian regimes - and the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Trump regime.
Max Boot is a senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.