WASHINGTON – In a dramatic reversal of American policy on Syria and the brutal civil war there, President Donald Trump told several members of Congress on Thursday that he is weighing military options against Syrian President Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons against innocent children.
Trump said he had not yet fully decided to take military action. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that “steps were under way” toward action and the ultimate removal of Assad from power, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis began preparing options for the president that would put the Assad regime in the Pentagon’s crosshairs.
The April 4 chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun “requires a serious response,” Tillerson told press on Thursday. “There would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.”
Trump echoed Tillerson in brief comments on Air Force One on his way to Florida, where he is hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping. “I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity,” he said. “Something should happen.”
The stunning development puts Assad’s regime in unexpected peril. Should Trump proceed, it would become the first intentional strike by the US against the Syrian government since a revolution against it broke out in 2011.
He would not only be reversing former president Barack Obama’s policy against direct involvement in the conflict, but his own stated positions as a private citizen and a presidential candidate. Trump has long cautioned against getting mired in Syria, and publicly warned Obama against taking military action after Assad used chemical weapons that killed 1,400 civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013.
Obama came close to striking Assad at that time, sending five destroyers and an aircraft carrier to the Syrian coast. He ultimately stood down after Russia offered to broker a deal ridding Assad of the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the Middle East.
The attack on Tuesday in Idlib province suggests that such an agreement did not fully hold. A nerve agent – which chemical-weapons experts think was sarin gas – was dropped on a civilian population, killing at least 74 people and injuring more than 550.
Britain, France, Germany and the US have all expressed that there is no doubt the attack from the air was the work of the Assad regime. That places Western powers in a similar dilemma to that of four years ago, only now, as president, Trump said he feels the weight of responsibility and the necessity to act.
“My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed,” Trump said on Wednesday, standing alongside King Abdullah II of Jordan in the White House Rose Garden. “It crossed a lot of lines for me.”
Trump said he would not preview any potential US military action.
“It is now my responsibility,” Trump added. “These heinous acts by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.”
The Pentagon has been sitting on war plans for several years and can quickly present Trump with a range of options. He may choose a short, days-long operation, or a more sustained campaign against infrastructure.
Alternatively, the US may use this crisis as an opportunity to change the course of the war, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain (R-Arizona) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) said in a joint statement.
“The United States should lead an international coalition to ground Assad’s air force,” McCain and Graham said in a statement. “This capability provides Assad a strategic advantage in his brutal slaughter of innocent civilians, both through the use of chemical weapons as well as barrel bombs, which kill far more men, women and children on a daily basis.
“Ultimately, the grounding of Assad’s air force can and should be part of a new comprehensive strategy to end the conflict in Syria,” they added.
Mattis was expected to brief Trump on Thursday in Florida on the range of options before him, sources said. The US is likely to rely on cruise missiles fired from the Mediterranean Sea instead of manned aircraft, which would be susceptible to both Syrian and Russian anti-aircraft systems.
The Pentagon faces a challenge that was not present in 2013: the permanent presence of Russia that has permeated Syria’s military apparatus throughout the country since 2015. Any operation against Assad would bring Washington in direct confrontation with Moscow and could put Russian assets and personnel at risk.
Thus, a complex political dimension is added to the decision: whether to challenge Russia amid an FBI investigation into Trump associates allegedly colluding with Moscow to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. Trump furthermore campaigned on a platform of collaborating with Russia in Syria against Islamic State, at the expense of the rebellion against Assad.
Tillerson spoke by phone with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in order to obtain “the Russian analysis or readout of what they thought had happened.” A State Department official said that Tillerson ended the phone call unimpressed by what he heard.
Moscow claims that Assad forces struck a warehouse that, unbeknown to them, housed a terrorist organization’s chemical weapons cache.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan encouraged Trump on Thursday to strike and committed to assist any US operation. “I thank him, but it should not remain unfulfilled,” Erdogan told Turkish television, when asked to comment on Trump’s potential military plans.
In France, leading En Marche presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron said that he would support US action against Assad under the cover of a UN mandate. His rival in the elections scheduled for later this month, Marine Le Pen of the National Front, has yet to comment.
Several Democratic senators – including Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Ben Cardin of Maryland – appear ready to support the president should he choose to take military action.
“What remains to be seen is whether there will be strong US leadership and policy to hold Assad accountable,” said Cardin, a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Later this month we will commemorate Yom Hashoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day]. We say ‘Never again,’ but it’s time we meant it, and it starts with holding Assad accountable.”