The New York Times
A world grown numb to the slaughter of civilians in Syria has been roused in the last 48 hours by photographs on social media of lifeless men, women and children in the rebel-held town of Douma, many with white foam coming from their mouths and nostrils, victims of chemical weapons. Outraged Western nations blame President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and demand retaliation.
Russia and Iran, Mr. Assad’s callous enablers, have denied that he has once again used these horrific weapons on his own people. But Douma is surrounded by Syrian forces, whom experts have blamed for most of the 85 chemical attacks in the country over the past five years. Syria had a major chemical weapons program before pledging to surrender it after chemical attacks in 2013, a commitment it failed to fully honor.
President Trump took limited military action against Syria after a chemical weapons attack last year, largely ignored the issue after that and then last week surprised his military commanders by announcing plans to soon withdraw 2,000 troops in the fight against the Islamic State. Mr. Trump vowed on Sunday on Twitter that there would be a “big price to pay” for the latest killings, estimated at up to 70 people dead, according to aid groups.
But the president should know by now that tough talk without a coherent strategy or follow-through is dangerous.
What to do next in Syria is a crucial test for Mr. Trump, who has shirked America’s traditional leadership role. He has tried to seem like a macho leader who would aggressively use American power where President Barack Obama wouldn’t, while talking about pulling out of the Middle East and walking away from international commitments.
With such inconstancy, he will not be able to stop the violence in Syria, and with no clear, unified plan with the Western allies, he will only empower Mr. Assad.
Mr. Trump needs to work with the other major powers on a broad plan that could force Mr. Assad, Russia and Iran to end the carnage and be held accountable. The United Nations Security Council needs to recommit to the Chemical Weapons Convention’s ban on such weapons, authorize experts to verify who was responsible in Douma and create an independent investigation that could lead to prosecution in a tribunal like the International Criminal Court.
If the Syrian regime’s guilt is determined, the United States should impose tough new sanctions, like a freeze on financial assets, as well. If military action is considered, Congress — which has long avoided its constitutional war-making responsibilities — needs to approve it. If a Russian veto prevents Security Council action, then Mr. Trump needs to work with our allies, through NATO or otherwise.
The timing isn’t great — Mr. Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser, John Bolton, only showed up for his first day at the White House on Monday, and his secretary of state nominee, Mike Pompeo, hasn’t been confirmed — but this work is too important to wait. The use of poison gas, a war crime under international law, has been integral to Mr. Assad’s scorched-earth drive to regain control of the last rebel-held areas. As Mr. Trump said on Monday, “We cannot allow atrocities like that.”
Just to reiterate: To have any chance of success, any international retaliatory action must be part of a coherent diplomatic strategy for stabilizing Syria and putting a political settlement in place. Since 2011, more than 500,000 Syrians have been killed and millions of refugees have fled to neighboring countries and Europe. The conflict has allowed Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Islamic State, now degraded by an American-led coalition, to gain a foothold in Syria.
During a Security Council briefing on Monday, Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador, lamented that chemical weapons were becoming “normalized” and argued “Russia could stop this senseless slaughter” in Syria if it chose to.
“Only a monster targets civilians and then ensures that there are no ambulances to transfer the wounded. No hospitals to save their lives,” she said. “No doctors or medicine to ease their pain.”
Ms. Haley called for the appointment of an expert group to investigate the attack, demanded humanitarian access to Douma and warned that if Russia continued to block Security Council action, “the United States will respond.”
After each new atrocity, Mr. Trump and others tend to blame Mr. Obama, because Mr. Obama “did nothing” to enforce his red line against chemical weapons after an attack near Damascus in August 2013.
Mr. Obama forswore military action after that attack in favor of working with Russia to get Syria to destroy its chemical weapons. The resulting agreement deprived Mr. Assad of much of his arsenal, though not all, despite Moscow’s promises.
In those days, Mr. Trump wasn’t a fan of military action, either, warning Mr. Obama against it. Once president, though, he made a different choice and, operating under dubious legal authority, sent cruise missiles to strike a Syrian airfield last year after the attack on Khan Sheikhoun.
But lacking a plan to keep up the pressure, his one-off military operation failed to deter Mr. Assad from using chemical weapons; there have been at least seven other attacks this year. Now, the military option is back on the table.
Mr. Assad, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Iran’s leaders came to believe that they could do what they wanted in Syria; Mr. Trump reinforced that when he called for the early withdrawal of the 2,000 troops there.
He further reinforced a sense of impunity every time he exempted Mr. Putin from direct criticism for Russia’s reprehensible behavior. So it was significant that Mr. Trump finally drew a line, saying in a tweet, “President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad.”
The question is what comes next.