In the midst of his ongoing Russian connection scandal, Donald Trump had a great chance for diverting press attention with Syria, but even with that, he’s creating more questions than answers with his actions. The problem always seems to be that his actions don’t match his words when they are needed most.
His diehard supporters love to say that you can’t take his words literally, but there is a huge problem with that. Many of his words and claims while on the campaign trail have turned out to be literal. His Muslim ban was real along with his attempts at that ‘beautiful wall’ along with repealing and replacing Obamacare. Granted, he’s failed at all of these, but it only proves that his words do mean something and can no longer be dismissed so easily.
The problem he’s creating with Syria for both Republicans and Democrats is that there doesn’t seem to be a fleshed out doctrine on how to deal with the country. It’s quite the quagmire due to his relationship with Vladimir Putin. The Russian dictator is so enmeshed in the county with Assad that whichever action he takes, there’s bound to be repercussions.
Just in the last week, here are all the policy positions the Donald Trump Administration has declared:
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2013
Policy 1 – Assad can stay: 2013 – 30 March 2017
For years, as a private citizen on Twitter and as a presidential candidate, Trump was fine with Assad remaining in power, contending that the US should not get sucked into another Middle Eastern conflict, particularly one against a leader backed by Russia. After winning the election, Trump told the Wall Street Journal: “My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting Isis, and you have to get rid of Isis.” Assad quickly called Trump a “natural ally.”
On 30 March, Trump’s senior diplomats articulated that position clearly. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, mused that the US needed to “pick and choose [its] battles,” despite Assad’s human-rights abuses: “Our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.”
That same day, in Turkey, Tillerson said Assad’s “longer-term status … will be decided by the Syrian people”.
Since the Syrian people live in one of the world’s bloodiest war zones, besieged by Assad’s forces and others, observers understood Tillerson and Haley to say that the US was abandoning Barack Obama’s rhetorical commitment to Assad’s removal. Senator John McCain, a hawk on Syria, called himself “deeply disturbed” by Tillerson and Haley’s position.
“Ultimately, the administration’s statements today could lead America’s true allies and partners in the fight against Isis to fear the worst: a Faustian bargain with Assad and Putin sealed with an empty promise of counter-terrorism cooperation,” McCain said.
Five days later, Assad killed at least 70 people in Khan Sheikhoun, including children, with the nerve agent sarin.
Policy 2 – Assad must go, after chemical attack: 5-6 April 2017
By Wednesday, the first day dominated by images of the dead at Khan Sheikhoun, Trump expressed public anger, saying Assad had crossed “many, many lines.” By then, military planning for a retaliatory strike was under way.
But what was the objective of the strike? Hours before guided-missile destroyers launched 59 Tomahawk missiles on Thursday, Tillerson indicated that Trump had reversed himself completely. Tillerson certainly had.
“Assad’s role in the future is uncertain, clearly. With the acts that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people,” he said. Asked if the US was prepared to diplomatically rally an international coalition to remove Assad from power through what Tillerson called “a political process,” Tillerson responded: “Those steps are under way.”
The missiles that soon landed on the Shayrat airbase seemed, accordingly, to mark the first salvo toward the US ousting Assad.
Policy 3 – The issue is chemical weapons use, not Assad: 6-10 April 2017
Hours after the missile strike, the newly empowered national security adviser HR McMaster, whose career was made by a different Middle Eastern war, defined the US attack in minimalist terms: “It was aimed at the capacity to commit mass murder with chemical weapons, but it was not of a scope or a scale that it would go after all such related facilities.” Next to McMaster, Tillerson said the chemical attack was “particular[ly] heinous,” over and above Assad’s brutality with conventional weapons.
Notably absent from McMaster’s explanation of the strikes was any indication of whether Assad’s removal was a US objective at all. (The strike itself would not have affected Assad’s hold on power, but if endangering that hold were once again a US goal, it would have to be the first of many.) Instead, McMaster said, the strike ought to prompt “a big shift in Assad’s calculus” against chemical weapons use. Assad’s calculus, however, should not matter to the US if he is no longer in power.
On 10 April, the US defense secretary, James Mattis, issued a statement similar to that of his ally McMaster: “The Syrian government would be ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons.” But that was after several statements with different policy implications.
Policy 4 – Attack Isis first, then Assad can stay or go depending on whether Russia agrees: 9 April 2017
Tillerson, making his first appearance on the Sunday chat shows, sounded more like his 30 March self than his 6 April incarnation. “Our priority is first the defeat of Isis,” he said – which, in fairness, he had also said on 6 April in what seemed like a throwaway line. Once the US could “conclude” that war, the US would attempt to broker ceasefire agreements between the Syrian civil war’s various combatants – even though Assad, with Russian support, has violated ceasefires in the past.
Tillerson said he was “hopeful” to work with Russia “and use their influence to achieve areas of stabilization throughout Syria and create the conditions for a political process through Geneva in which we can engage all of the parties on the way forward.”
Through that process – apparently not yet “under way,” despite Tillerson’s 6 April statement – the international community would “decide the fate of Bashar Assad.”
Nothing about Tillerson’s statement implied that Assad’s “fate” would be to leave power. The “areas of stabilization” in Syria that Russia has facilitated have propped Assad up, and Russia has shown no signs of abandoning its client. Nor did Tillerson define when the US would “conclude” its war against Isis.
Beyond that, Tillerson implied that overthrowing Assad would be disastrous, citing Obama’s adventurism in Libya that toppled Muammar Gaddafi: “Any time you go in and have a violent change at the top, it is very difficult to create the conditions for stability longer-term.”
But if Tillerson was again prizing stability over regime change, Haley was doing the opposite.
Haley, reversing her own 30 March statement thoroughly, said the US could have “multiple priorities” in Syria beyond defeating Isis. She agreed with Tillerson on the importance of “the political solution”, but filled in the blanks on where the US wanted it to end up: “In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government, and we have to make sure that we’re pushing that process. The political solution has to come together for the good of the people of Syria.”
The message to Russia, Haley told NBC, was: “We’re not going to allow you to cover up for this regime anymore.”
McMaster, in an interview with Fox News, seemed to back Haley’s vision of US diplomacy for Syria, all while placing the onus for Assad’s fate on Russia.
“It’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime. Now, we are not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect that change,” McMaster said, saying Russia had to ask “hard questions” about “are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population and using the most heinous weapons available?”
Muddying the waters of Tillerson’s Isis-first approach, McMaster said: “There has to be a degree of simultaneous activity as well as sequencing of the defeat of Isis first.”
Asked why the US drew the line at chemical weapons, rather than the barrel bombs Assad’s forces have used to kill countless more Syrian civilians, Haley replied: “That’s a decision for the president to make.” McMaster, asked the same question, agreed: “The president will make whatever decision he thinks is in the best interest of the American people.”
Policy 5 – The US will respond militarily to barrel bombs: 10 April
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, on Monday implied Trump had made the decision to which Haley and McMaster alluded. Now the US placed barrel bombs along the continuum with chemical weapons. Since the US had responded to chemical weapons with Tomahawk missiles, Spicer’s comments suggested an even deeper US military engagement in Syria unrelated to chemical weapons, even as McMaster had defined the strike in a manner that suggested the US merely sought to establish a credible deterrent against future chemical weapons use.
“The sight of people being gassed and blown away by barrel bombs ensures that if we see this kind of action again, we hold open the possibility of future action,” Spicer said, reading from prepared – presumably deliberate – remarks.
Spicer, following criticism, later said that he only meant to refer to barrel bombs that contained chlorine or other industrial chemicals. But that would still represent a substantial expansion of the US rules of engagement in Syria. The regime is suspected of using chlorine gas in its attacks on at least 16 occasions since 2013.
Within hours, Mattis released a statement once again defining the US objectives minimally – and with clarity atypical of the Trump administration.
“The US military strike against Shayrat airfield on April 6 was a measured response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons,” said Mattis, a veteran of two different Iraq wars and Afghanistan.
“The president directed this action to deter future use of chemical weapons and to show the United States will not passively stand by while Assad murders innocent people with chemical weapons, which are prohibited by international law and which were declared destroyed.”
Mattis made no mention of barrel bombs, suggesting a less definitive posture than the one Spicer presented.
It remains to be seen whether Tillerson will announce a sixth policy for Syria when in Moscow.
Before the U.S. attack on a Syrian air base, President Donald Trump accused his predecessor of doing nothing when Syria’s government used chemical weapons against its population in 2013. Trump is right that President Barack Obama issued what amounted to an empty threat of military action. The circumstances, though, were more complicated than Trump described.
A look at statements on a selection of subjects over the past week by Trump and lawmakers:
TRUMP: In a White House statement after what the Trump administration said was a bombing involving the nerve agent sarin in a rebel-held part of northern Syria: “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 FACTS: Many in the foreign policy establishment essentially agree with Trump. That’s not to say he told the full story.
When evidence emerged in August 2013 of a large-scale chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs, more than 10 times deadlier than this past week’s, Obama quickly signaled his intention to use military force. But when key ally Britain wouldn’t participate, Obama became uncomfortable about going it alone and sought Congress’ authorization. Lawmakers in both parties balked; he could not win enough support.
Indeed, when Obama had made his “red line” threat a year earlier, Trump himself tweeted: “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your powder for another (and more important) day!”
It’s also true, though, that Obama could have ordered a military strike without congressional authorization, as Trump did Thursday. Derek Chollet, Obama’s assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, wrote in Politico last year that he was initially shocked when Obama decided to go to Congress, because “it was clear the president had all the domestic legal authority and international justification he needed to act.”
In the end, Obama turned to diplomacy when Russia offered him a way out. Their deal led the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, to own up to chemical weapons stocks and agreeing to have them removed, steps seen as breakthroughs at the time.
It wasn’t “nothing,” as Trump claimed. But neither it did it remove Syria’s chemical weapons threat. Assad’s forces are believed to have conducted a number of deadly chlorine attacks in the years since, with no international punishment. And as is now apparent, Obama’s deal wasn’t enough to spare Syrian civilians from a sarin-like nerve gas this past week.
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL, Senate majority leader, on why he opposed Obama’s proposal for U.S. military action against Syria in 2013 but supports what Trump did: “Secretary (of State John) Kerry, I guess in order to reassure the left-leaning members of his own party, said it would sort of be like a pinprick. You know, really would not be of any great consequence. I don’t know whether he had in mind knocking out a tent and a couple of camels or what.” But Trump’s strike “was well-planned, well- executed, went right to the heart of the matter, which is using chemical weapons. So, had I seen that – that kind of approach by President Obama, I’m sure I would’ve signed up.”
THE FACTS: What McConnell, R-Ky., said at the time was that Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people did not threaten the U.S. “A vital national security risk is clearly not in play,” he said then, responding to a far deadlier attack on civilians than the latest one.
McConnell told the Senate in September 2013 that Obama’s planned action was detached from any strategy to end the Syrian civil war. McConnell said the planned intervention could be too limited to dissuade Assad from further use of chemical weapons – or so broad that it could put those weapons in the hands of extremists, if Assad lost control. His concern not merely, or even principally, that intervention might amount to a “pinprick.”
At the time, McConnell was alone among the top Senate and House leaders from either party in opposing Obama’s proposal. The senator was facing a primary challenge from a Republican who opposed intervening in Syria.
TRUMP, speaking to CEOs at the White House about the nation’s unemployment rate: “We have 100 million people if you look” who want jobs and can’t get them. “You know, the real number’s not 4.6 percent … one of the statistics that, to me, is just ridiculous. … When you look for a job, you can’t find it and you give up. You are now considered statistically employed.”
THE FACTS: He’s wrong about federal jobs data. There’s no category that counts frustrated job-seekers as “statistically employed.”
And there aren’t 100 million of them.
When people give up looking for work, they are categorized as having left the workforce – neither employed nor unemployed.
Trump’s figure of 100 million people uncounted in the unemployment rate is made up largely of high-school and college students, retirees and stay-at-home parents who aren’t looking for work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does ask people outside the workforce if they would want a job, even if they aren’t actively seeking one. The bureau found 5.6 million people fit this category in February, a small fraction of what the president claimed.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, Senate Democratic leader, on the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch: “Senator McConnell would have the world believe that his hands are tied. That the only option after Judge Gorsuch doesn’t earn 60 votes is to break the rules, to change the rules. That could not be further from the truth.”
THE FACTS: McConnell was closer to the truth on this matter.
A Senate rules change, requiring only 51 votes to stop a filibuster instead of 60, did appear to be the lone route that Republicans had to put Gorsuch on the court. It was the route they took in winning his confirmation Friday. To Schumer, D-N.Y., Republicans had the option of ditching Gorsuch and coming up with a more “mainstream” nominee. It’s unlikely, however, that any nominee produced by Trump would win Democrats’ approval.
TRUMP, in remarks to CEOs: “There was a very large infrastructure bill that was approved during the Obama administration, a trillion dollars. Nobody ever saw anything being built. I mean, to this day, I haven’t heard of anything that’s been built. They used most of that money – it went and they used it on social programs and we want this to be on infrastructure.”
THE FACTS: The $787 billion package in 2009 was not an infrastructure bill, but a catchall response to the recession with infrastructure as a major part.
More than one-third of it went to tax cuts, not social programs. Medicaid spending and other help for health care made up the next largest component. Then came infrastructure, followed closely by education. The package mixed economic and social spending, helping states train displaced workers, for example, extending jobless benefits and assisting with low-income housing.
As for being unaware that stimulus money built anything, Trump needn’t have traveled far from Trump Tower to see those dollars at work.
In New York City alone, $30 million went toward repairs and repainting of the Brooklyn Bridge; the Staten Island ferry also got a boost. More than $80 million was earmarked for Moynihan Station, an annex to Penn Station that is meant to return the rail hub to the grandeur of the original Penn Station. Road, bridge and transit projects across the country got a lift.
Trump praised Obama and the package’s combination of tax cuts and spending programs when it passed in February 2009.
“I thought he did a terrific job,” Trump said then. “This is a strong guy (who) knows what he wants, and this is what we need.”
TRUMP, on signing executive action that revived the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada: “I was signing the order and I said where’d they buy the steel? I didn’t like the answer. I said who fabricated the steel? I didn’t like the answer. I said, ‘From now on, we’re going to put a clause, got to be made in America.'”
THE FACTS: This is one of Trump’s favorite stories, a mix of fact and fiction that he told with more accuracy in its latest iteration.
This time, he owned up to the fact that he placed no requirement on the TransCanada pipeline company to use U.S. steel: “They had already bought 60, 70 percent of it, so you can’t be too wild, right?” So a mandate for U.S. steel would be for future pipelines, “from now on.”
It’s not quite right, though, to say he’s insisting that steel or pipelines be “made in America” in the future. His directive calls for the use of U.S. content “to the maximum extent possible and to the extent permitted by law,” leaving lots of wiggle room.
TRUMP, on progress against the Islamic State group: “We had a very, very fine delegation come over from Egypt, and also from Iraq. And they said more has been done in the last six weeks than has been done in years with the previous administration.”
THE FACTS: Far more progress was achieved against IS over the past year than in the past six weeks.
Last year Iraqi military forces, supported by the coalition, waged successful battles to oust IS from Fallujah, Ramadi, eastern Mosul and a number of smaller towns along the Tigris River. They also established logistical hubs for the push that began in February to retake western Mosul, which is expected to be the last major battle against IS in Iraq. No major cities have been taken in the past six weeks.
As for Syria, Trump was correct in suggesting that there has been significant progress against IS in recent weeks, as the U.S. deployed hundreds more troops to help prepare local forces to retake Raqqa, the Syrian city that is the militants’ de facto capital.