Responsibility for the chemical event in Khan Sheikhoun is still very much in question.
Once upon a time, Donald J. Trump, the New York City businessman-turned-president, berated then-President Barack Obama back in September 2013 about the fallacy of an American military strike against Syria. At that time, the United States was considering the use of force against Syria in response to allegations (since largely disproven) that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Trump, via tweet, declared “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!”
President Obama, despite having publicly declaring the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime a “red line” which, if crossed, would demand American military action, ultimately declined to order an attack, largely on the basis of warnings by James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, that the intelligence linking the chemical attack on Ghouta was less than definitive.
President Barack Obama, in a 2016 interview with The Atlantic, observed, “there’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses.” While the “Washington playbook,” Obama noted, could be useful during times of crisis, it could “also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions.”
His “red line” on chemical weapons usage, combined with heated rhetoric coming from his closest advisors, including Secretary of State John Kerry, hinting at a military response, was such a trap. Ultimately, President Obama opted to back off, observing that “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.” The media, Republicans and even members of his own party excoriated Obama for this decision.
Yet, in November 2016, as president-elect, Donald Trump doubled down on Obama’s eschewing of the “Washington playbook.” The situation on the ground in Syria had fundamentally changed since 2013; the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had taken over large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, establishing a “capital” in the Syrian city of Raqqa and declaring the creation of an Islamic “Caliphate.” American efforts to remove Syrian President Assad from power had begun to bar fruit, forcing Russia to intervene in September 2015 in order to prop up the beleaguered Syrian president.
Trump, breaking from the mainstream positions held by most American policy makers, Republican and Democrat alike, declared that the United States should focus on fighting and defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) and not pursuing regime change in Syria. “My attitude,” Trump noted, “was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS. Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, and now you have Iran, which is becoming powerful, because of us, is aligned with Syria… Now we’re backing rebels against Syria, and we have no idea who these people are.” Moreover, Trump observed, given the robust Russian presence inside Syria, if the United States attacked Assad, “we end up fighting Russia, fighting Syria.”
For more than two months, the new Trump administration seemed to breathe life into the notion that Donald Trump had, like his predecessor before him, thrown the “Washington playbook” out the window when it came to Syrian policy. After ordering a series of new military deployments into Syria and Iraq specifically designed to confront ISIS, the Trump administration began to give public voice to a major shift in policy vis-à-vis the Syrian President.
For the first time since President Obama, in August 2011, articulated regime change in Damascus as a precondition for the cessation of the civil conflict that had been raging since April 2011, American government officials articulated that this was no longer the case. “You pick and choose your battles,” the American Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told reporters on March 30, 2017. “And when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” Haley’s words were echoed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who observed that same day, while on an official visit to Turkey, “I think the… longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
This new policy direction lasted barely five days. Sometime in the early afternoon of April 4, 2017, troubling images and video clips began to be transmitted out of the Syrian province of Idlib by anti-government activists, including members of the so-called “White Helmets,” a volunteer rescue team whose work was captured in an eponymously-named Academy Award-winning documentary film. These images showed victims in various stages of symptomatic distress, including death, from what the activists said was exposure to chemical weapons dropped by the Syrian air force on the town of Khan Sheikhoun that very morning.
Images of these tragic deaths were immediately broadcast on American media outlets, with pundits decrying the horrific and heinous nature of the chemical attack, which was nearly unanimously attributed to the Syrian government, even though the only evidence provided was the imagery and testimony of the anti-Assad activists who, just days before, were decrying the shift in American policy regarding regime change in Syria. President Trump viewed these images, and was deeply troubled by what he saw, especially the depictions of dead and suffering children.