“UnPresidented” is a new column discussing the transition and first days of the Trump administration.
In the aftermath of Thursday’s targeted missile strikes on a Syrian government-controlled air base, there has been very little indicating future plans in the country from President Trump. His notoriously twitchy fingers have not even tapped out a tweet on the subject, apart from a defensive tweet about why a runway at the air base had not also been targeted, in the near-week since the U.S. took the first direct military action against the forces of Bashar al-Assad in the entirety of the six-year-long conflict. All this has left the country, and the world, wondering what Trump will do next and whether he has a true strategy for dealing with the Syrian crisis.
The strikes came in retaliation against the Assad government after a devastating chemical bombing attack on the rebel-held Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, as Trump ordered the deployment of 59 missiles to the air base responsible. The military action marked a sharp 180 from Trump’s Syria policy in the past. At the time of a different chemical attack in 2013, Trump had some choice words for Former President Obama, tweeting out, “We should stay the hell out of Syria” when Obama increased military support to rebel forces. Trump also tweeted, “The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria―big mistake if he does not!” in 2013, something, it is important to note, he himself did not acquire. Throughout his campaign and early days of the presidency, Trump continued to echo isolationism and criticize Obama for his handling of the situation in Syria.
Trump’s shift became evident in the hours after the strike, as he was deeply emotional after seeing images of the attack’s victims, telling reporters on Apr. 5 that his “attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.” A little more than 24 hours later, he had taken direct action.
Yet after taking such a decisive action, Trump has yet to follow up with anything, leaving many to wonder if this is a one-off strike that will end up meaning little as the conflict escalates.
Trump may not be answering those questions, but those around him certainly are, with mixed messages abound. In an interview on Sunday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson espoused the idea that the strike was solely intended to stop the “most recent horrific use of chemical weapons against women, children, and, as the President said, even small babies” and that Syria policy had not changed as a result, saying, “there is no change to our military posture.” These sentiments were echoed by Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Monday as he said in the daily press briefing that “we’re not just going to become the world’s policeman running around the country—running around the world.”
Yet this apparent “America First” doctrine was also challenged by those promoting it in the first place. On Monday Tillerson said at an Italian memorial for a Nazi massacre that “we rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.” Certainly, Tillerson has outlined a significantly more interventionist approach, with the assertion that the U.S. will take action against all crimes against “innocents.” U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley shared similar ideas in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” saying that “there is no political solution that any of us can see with Assad at the lead.” Haley’s assertions that the U.S. will take action to take out Assad directly conflict with Spicer’s and Tillerson’s assertions that it’s a one off action, which also contradicts later statements made by Tillerson and so on and so forth. The discrepancies show an administration without a coherent plan, with infighting aides seeking to push policy in a number of directions.
Though many have cheered Trump’s actions against Assad, including many European foreign ministers and a majority of the unconsulted Congress itself (though many legislators had the opposite response when Obama did the same, proving that this response is a partisan one), the strike represents a serious lack of preparation and cohesion. And Trump’s constant policy changes certainly won’t continue to win him favor. Syria is without a doubt a complex issue, and one air strike won’t solve the humanitarian crisis. To continue, Trump needs an actual nuanced plan that accounts for the complexities of the war.
Syria policy greatly plagued Obama during his presidency and the emergence of chemical weapons show that his diplomatic agreement with Assad to destroy all Syrian stores of chemical weapons wasn’t as successful as the former president professed. Trump faces the same issues in many ways, and it will remain to be seen if Trump can achieve some success. Trump can’t expect one air strike to completely fight the issue of chemical weapons and resolve the conflict. Without coherent policy, Trump has little hope of effectively dealing with the issue.
What is also clear is that the Syrian conflict now has a large importance on the global political scale, specifically regarding U.S. relations with Russia. The step against Assad has strained relations with the Kremlin and produced comments of support from many European foreign ministers, including the U.K.’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Italy’s foreign minister Angelino Alfano. These are things Trump must consider before he switches positions once again. If Trump is unable to coherently take action in Syria, he faces larger geopolitical implications and risks straining diplomatic relations around the globe.