Last Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters that the Trump administration, unlike Obama’s, will no longer prioritize removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
“Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No,” Haley said. “What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria.”
But in the wake of a poison gas attack that left at least 70 dead on Tuesday, the Trump administration now seems to be considering removing Assad with military force.
During a news conference on Thursday, Tillerson pinned blame for the attack on Assad and said he doesn’t foresee him continuing to rule Syria going forward. He added that “steps are underway” to remove him from power.
Rex Tillerson says "steps are underway" to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power https://t.co/HzlO21Ma9s
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) April 6, 2017
Those remarks came after Tillerson spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Putin’s regime, an ally of Assad’s, has publicly questioned whether the latest gas attack in Syria was a false flag — just as they did following a deadly poison gas attack that occurred in 2013.
Tillerson was reportedly not moved by whatever explanation Lavrov offered for the latest atrocity.
— Michael Wilner (@mawilner) April 6, 2017
Meanwhile, on Air Force One, President Trump said he hasn’t yet talked to Putin, but that “something should happen” to Assad. He added that he hasn’t yet talked to Congress about any potential military action in Syria, even though he tweeted that “Obama needs Congressional approval” when his predecessor was considering military action against the Assad regime in 2013.
Aboard Air Force One:
Q: Should Assad leave power?
Trump: “He's there and I guess he's running things, so something should happen.” pic.twitter.com/8v5bPwJEE5
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) April 6, 2017
Reuters, citing an unnamed U.S. official, reports that “options being discussed by the Pentagon and White House could include grounding aircraft used by Assad’s forces.”
“Such options would also include use of cruise missiles — allowing the United States to strike targets without putting piloted aircraft in the skies above Syria,” Reuters adds. “The U.S. official did not comment on how likely military action might be or suggest which, if any, options might be recommended by the Pentagon.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis will meet with Trump Thursday evening at the president’s private Mar-a-Lago resort to discuss “options for strikes against the Assad regime,” according to NBC.
The Trump administration’s suddenly bellicose rhetoric toward the Assad regimes comes on the heels of a presidential campaign where Trump presented himself as the candidate who would keep U.S. forces out of entanglements in the Middle East.
“Why are we fighting ISIS in Syria?” Trump said during a Republican debate in September 2015. “Let them fight each other and pick up the remnants. I would talk to them, get along with them.”
Just days before the election, Trump went after Hillary Clinton for having a more hawkish posture toward Assad.
— Fox News (@FoxNews) November 3, 2016
Trump’s opposition to military intervention in Syria goes back much further than the campaign.
President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your "powder" for another (and more important) day!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2013
Despite his campaign rhetoric, the first two months of Trump’s presidency saw a dramatic escalation in civilian casualties due to airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
The Trump administration has already escalated the U.S. troop presence in Syria as part of the fight against ISIS, but it’s unclear how involved Trump has been in military decision-making.
When news broke about 400 marines being deployed to Syria early last month, Press Secretary Sean Spicer used remarkably passive language to describe the commander in chief’s oversight, saying, “Obviously the president was made aware of that.”
On Wednesday, Trump held a joint news conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan where he characterized Assad’s gas attack as crossing “many, many lines.” He said the incident “changed very much” his attitude toward Assad, but he didn’t detail how that would translate into policy.
But just before that news conference, Trump gave an interview to the New York Times where he bemoaned the America’s costly military entanglements in the Middle East.
“We’ve spent $6 trillion in the Middle East, as of two months ago,” Trump said. “Uh, $6 trillion. And yet we can’t fix our own roads and our own highways.”