Tillerson Says Syria Policy Unchanged, Despite Action

  • Calvin Wolf
  • Apr 9, 2017 10:35AM

Syria is a complex quagmire, perhaps a greater foreign policy challenge than any previously faced by the United States. In this Middle Eastern nation, the players range from bad to worse, and it can be hard to tell which is which. The ruling regime, which has been fighting a civil war since 2011, is an authoritarian government led by dictator Bashar al-Assad. Al-Assad has been almost universally condemned for his use of chemical weapons against his own people, including innocent civilians. 

Assad’s opponents may not be much better. They consist of various rebel groups of dubious intent and competence. His primary foe is ISIS, which has also been almost universally condemned for a litany of crimes against humanity. Virtually the only thing ISIS has not done is use weapons of mass destruction, like chemical weapons, on a significant scale. Whether it comes to living under the jackboot of Assad or the rusty blade of ISIS, the people of Syria face no good option.

In 2013, then-President Barack Obama faced this quagmire and, by most contemporary accounts, failed. After insisting that the use of chemical weapons by Assad was a “redline” that would provoke a [“boots on the ground” military] response, Obama did not alter his course of limited airstrikes after evidence confirmed that the dictator was using sarin gas. Conservatives, especially defense hawks, loudly criticized the president for ignoring atrocity and making the U.S. appear weak before the world. 

Obviously, Obama was hesitant to send U.S. ground forces back to the Middle East en masse after years of conflict in both Iraq and Afghanistan. An added complication was the presence of Russian forces in Syria, there to assist Assad’s regime. Any U.S. invasion could accidentally touch off conflict between U.S. and Russian troops within Syria, perhaps leading to a war between the two powers. Certainly, the added wrinkle of Russia has made Washington hesitant to go in with guns blazing.

But now Assad has used chemical weapons again, causing more civilian suffering, and it’s no longer Barack Obama who is occupying the Oval Office. Tough-talking Donald Trump is the new president, and he is facing a conundrum. Earlier this spring, he upset several prominent members of his own party by declaring that the removal of Bashar al-Assad as dictator of Syria was no longer a U.S. priority. Now, he is hinting that significant military action against Assad might be on the table again, and made good on his threat Thursday night by striking Syrian military bases with cruise missiles.