WASHINGTON, April 11 — President Donald Trump’s foreign policy views are often unclear or inconsistent, but even by his own chaotic standards his position on US involvement in Syria has seesawed wildly.
Before his arrival in the Oval Office, Trump was very much in the anti-war camp, publicly sympathetic to Russia and opposed to any US military action to punish Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
In late 2013, when then president Barack Obama was pondering whether to enforce his own “red line” by launching strikes to punish Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Trump was skeptical.
“What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval,” he tweeted.
When it did indeed appear that Obama was ready to act, and senators began drawing up a resolution to authorize the use of force, Trump became more strident: “What I am saying is stay out of Syria.”
Again turning to Twitter, he laid out his views in an urgent, upper-case salvo.
“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!” he declared.
Obama, of course, never did launch strikes on Syria and the civil war was still raging, now with increased Russian and Iranian involvement, as he handed over the keys to the White House.
But, once he was in the Oval Office and the world was looking to him for leadership, Trump’s view changed.
In April last year, when Assad was accused of launching a deadly sarin attack on rebel-held Khan Shaikun, Trump ordered a punitive US military response.
More than 50 cruise missiles rained down on a Syrian air base, but Trump’s headline-grabbing first foreign military action proved to be a one-off and did not alter the dynamic on the ground.
Nonetheless, Trump’s position on Syria continued to evolve.
In January, then secretary of state Rex Tillerson laid out the outlines of a new strategy to defeat the remnants of the Islamic State group and to counter Iranian influence.
And, for the first time, Tillerson suggested the small US force deployed in eastern Syria gave the US leverage to pressure Assad into joining peace talks with the armed opposition.
“Continued US presence to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS will also help pave the way for legitimate local civil authorities to exercise responsible governance of their liberated areas,” he said.
And he warned that “a total withdrawal of American personnel at this time would restore Assad and continue his brutal treatment against his own people.”
In tandem with the announcement of a broad regional strategy to counter Iran’s “malign influence,” Tillerson’s speech suggested that Trump had been won over to longer term US intervention.
And then the narrative flipped again.
At the end of March this year, in an aside during a populist speech in Ohio, Trump declared: “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.”
His announcement sowed confusion and dismay in Washington foreign policy circles, including among senior Trump advisors who had been pushing a tough stance against Russia and Iran.
The president met last week with his top generals, and stopped short of demanding a timetable for a pullout, but the White House nevertheless said the military mission was coming to a “rapid end.”
Then came last weekend’s alleged chemical weapons strike on the rebel-held suburb of Douma, which left more than 40 people dead and generated more television footage of slaughtered infants.
Trump was incensed, and all talk ceased of the seven trillion dollars he had said the United States had wasted on Middle East wars, with nothing to show in return.
Assad and if necessary his backer President Vladimir Putin of Russia would have a “big price to pay,” Trump declared as he again assembled his generals to discuss a response.
And Obama was subjected to a new presidential tweet attacking his failure to enforce the chemical weapons red line — the red line Trump had previously strenuously urged him not to enforce. — AFP