Reports from war-ravaged Syria this week tell us little that is new.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad is suspected once again of using chemical weapons on his people.
The images of the devastation are horrific and heart-wrenching: Harrowing footage of victims frothing at the mouth or being hosed off as they gasp for breath.
These pictures are morbidly familiar.
In 2013, Syria’s military attacked a rebel-backed area of the Damascus suburbs with sarin gas, killing close to 1,500 people including 400 children.
That attack crossed the now-infamous “red line” enunciated by President Obama months earlier.
Syria’s use of banned chemical weapons, Obama declared, would warrant a U.S. military response.
The U.S. did nothing.
Instead, a deal of sorts was brokered between the U.S. and Russia (Assad’s strongest ally and backer), but it relied on Syria’s voluntary surrender of its chemical weapons.
Continued chemical attacks indicate Assad hasn’t felt much like complying, as the impotent response from the U.S. and other members of the international community has only emboldened his sadistic regime.
President Trump was quick to blame his predecessor’s “weakness and irresolution” for this latest atrocity.
That is fair criticism.
Obama’s policy of inaction on Syria is widely considered one of the greatest and most costly failures of his presidency, not merely because “he presided over a humanitarian and cultural disaster of epochal proportions,” but as Fred Hiatt, editor of The Washington Post’s editorial page wrote in 2015, because “he soothed the American people into feeling no responsibility for the tragedy.”
America’s appetite for military intervention in the Middle East remains low, and viable foreign policy options, once more numerous, are now extremely limited.
Trump’s assertion that Obama’s missed opportunity in Syria led to last week’s attacks is on target, though it’s worth noting that as a private citizen, Trump argued against taking action in Syria.
Still, Wednesday’s powerful speech by Trump’s U.N Ambassador, Nikki Haley, was an unequivocal condemnation of the Assad regime and those who support it. She told the gathered assembly that the U.S. may be “compelled to take our own action.”
But will this latest attack move Trump, whose “America First” foreign policy approach was crucial to his election, to change dramatically the non-interventionist approach of his predecessor?
For six years, civil war has ravaged Syria, killing hundreds of thousands and displacing half of the nation’s population.
The flood of refugees has caused unrest and instability in the surrounding region and in Europe.
As military and foreign policy experts have warned time and again, chaos and constant warfare create a safe haven for militant extremists to flourish and train.
If the humanitarian crisis does not motivate Americans to worry about Syria’s future, then surely the fear of how its volatility threatens U.S. security interests must.
“The threat in Syria exists whether we recognize it or not, whether we have a strategy for it or not,” writes The Federalist’s Robert Tracinski. “We don’t get to take a pass on this because it’s hard and there are no good answers.”
The Obama administration took a pass.
Trump has decidedly fewer options than his predecessor, but he has even more reasons to act.
Many Americans attacked Trump’s efforts to temporarily ban Syrian refugees as inhumane. Few have supported efforts to aid those who remain in their warn-torn homeland.
Trump can change that.
Many have criticized the president for his administration’s cozy relationship with Russia.
Taking action against a Russian-backed Assad would show Trump to be independent of Russian influence.
Trump has a real opportunity to manage a significant international crisis and right the wrongs of his predecessor.
In Trump own words, “It is now my responsibility.”
He should act accordingly.