Just last week, top aides to President Donald Trump declared that ousting Bashar Assad from power is no longer a priority for the United States, calling the Syrian strongman’s continued rule a “political reality” that needs to be accepted.
Now, reports of a deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria have brought home another reality: priority or not, Assad still poses a political problem for Trump, and it’s one that won’t simply vanish by blaming former President Barack Obama.
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As accounts filtered in Tuesday of dozens dead from the gassing, Republicans, Democrats and even some foreign leaders slammed the Trump team for words and actions they said had emboldened Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers.
Some even questioned whether if the new U.S. administration had given away a critical piece of leverage in the struggling international effort to bring peace to Syria.
“Bashar Assad and his friends, that is, his friends, the Russians, take note of what Americans say,” GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona told CNN. “I’m sure they are encouraged to know the United States is withdrawing and seeking some kind of a new arrangement with the Russians. And it is another disgraceful chapter in American history, and it was predictable.”
Wa’el Alzayat, a former senior policy adviser on Iraq and Syria in the Obama administration, said public assurances that Assad could stay in power were exactly what the Syrian regime, the Russians and the Iranians “have been seeking for years.”
“It’s unfortunate that we declared this publicly,” Alzayat said. “Why do that when we could have been gaining some concessions from them in return for Assad staying?”
The latest chemical weapons attacks, if confirmed, would be the deadliest in years in Syria. The toxic gas was delivered, apparently by a government airstrike, in Idlib province, killing dozens including children. According to media reports, an airstrike hit a clinic treating some of the victims a few hours later. The United Nations-affiliated Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it is trying to gather details about the attacks, which presumably would include what sort of chemical was used.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the attacks “reprehensible” but then quickly pivoted to blaming Obama. “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” Spicer said.
It was a criticism echoed by foreign policy analysts, who noted that Obama failed to take military action against Assad even after the Syrian leader violated the U.S. president’s 2012 “red line” by using chemical weapons. But even Obama critics acknowledged that the previous administration helped orchestrate a 2013 deal to remove much of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile – and, unlike the Trump team, Obama never publicly abandoned the demand that Assad relinquish power.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said last Thursday that America’s “priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, at a separate event, said, "I think the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people."
The following day, Spicer said that “with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.” He added that defeating the Islamic State terrorist group is a more important priority than getting rid of Assad, which, again, was also effectively the case for the Obama administration.
Elliott Abrams, who oversaw U.S. Middle East policy under President George W. Bush, suggested that, politically speaking, Trump still has some room to maneuver in its response to the latest chemical weapons strike.
“The excuse the Trump administration has for inaction is that it is new, and this is the first chemical attack since January 20th,” the day Trump took office, Abrams wrote in an email. “At the very least there should be a warning to Assad that this is unacceptable and that there will be an American military reaction if it happens again.”
Trump administration officials have made it clear they consider Assad a butcher responsible for many of the estimated half-millions deaths in the six-year-old Syrian war. And Haley has in the past spoken out against Russia’s refusal to allow the United Nations to punish Syria over recent chemical weapons attacks, many of which involved chlorine gas.
But the administration’s apparent willingness to accept Assad’s continued rule has further fed suspicions that Trump isn’t sufficiently willing to push Russia, a sensitive subject in Washington. U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump, and the FBI is looking into Trump campaign aides’ contacts with Russians. The White House has denied wrongdoing and the president has questioned the validity of the intelligence assessments.
The Trump administration’s stance on Assad also poses a challenge on another front: It could embolden Iran, a country the new U.S. president has repeatedly blasted as a menace.
Acquiescing to Iran in Syria also is likely to dishearten many of America’s Arab allies in the Middle East who view Iran as a threat to their power. The shift in dynamics could also affect U.S. relationships with other partners in the region, many of whom despise Assad and have long called for his ouster.
As reports came in about the chemical weapons attacks, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu used Twitter to make a veiled jab at the Trump team’s recently stated views.
“Those saying Syrian people will decide Assad’s future: no people will remain if attacks continue,” Çavuşoğlu wrote.
Louis Nelson and Matthew Nussbaum contributed to this story.