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Dublin: 20°C Thursday 18 August 2022

Syria airstrike: Donald Trump's 180 degree shift on attacking the Assad regime

“Very bad things will happen” if the US attacks Syria, Trump tweeted back in 2013.


DONALD TRUMP’S DECISION to attack a Syrian airbase overnight – the first targeted strike against the Assad regime by the US – represents a dramatic shift in policy for his administration.

In a brief televised address delivered hours after the UN Security Council failed to agree on a probe into this week’s apparent chemical attack, Trump confirmed the action to the American people.

Trump’s visceral reaction to the suspected sarin attack prompted a swift and massive response, with the US firing 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat Airfield at 1.40am Irish time.

How has Trump’s policy shifted?

In comments last week, Trump’s chief spokesman Sean Spicer said of the situation in Syria:

There is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now.
We lost a lot of opportunity the last administration, with respect to Assad.

Trump’s top diplomat Rex Tillerson, in comments last week, said the “status of president Assad will be decided by the Syrian people” – tacitly aligning the US with Russia’s plan to allow the Syrian leader to seek re-election.

Nikki Haley – the US ambassador to the United Nations and increasingly the voice of US foreign policy compared to the taciturn Tillerson - underlined this choice.

“You pick and choose your battles,” she told reporters.

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 later walked this back, declaring Assad a “war criminal” and insisting that the Syrian people themselves reject him.

Spicer said there is no “fundamental option of regime change”.

Trump Sean Spicer Source: Evan Vucci

What did he say during the campaign?

During last year’s election campaign, Trump made it clear his priority would be the battle against Isis, rather than Assad.

“I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS,” Trump said in one of his three debates against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

In one of the more surprising moments of the series of televised debates, he also said he disagreed with now-Vice President Mike Pence on Syria and regime change.

The moderator asked:

If you were president what would you do about Syria and the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo? And I want to remind you what your running mate said. He said provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength and that if Russia continues to be involved in airstrikes along with the Syrian government forces of Assad, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike the military targets of the Assad regime.

Trump responded:

Okay. He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree. I disagree.

Source: CNBC/YouTube

And before the campaign?

Trump’s past positions on Syria were being shared on Twitter this morning, in the wake of the overnight attacks.

Here’s how he felt about the Assad regime, and the Obama administration’s approach to it, back in 2013, long before he declared he would be running for the White House himself:



What happened in the last few days?

At least 80 people were killed in a suspected chemical weapons attack on the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun this week.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said those killed in Tuesday’s attack included thirty children and twenty women.

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In his first statement, Trump criticised his predecessor Barack Obama’s “weakness and irresolution” in failing to punish previous Syrian chemical attacks in 2013.

However, no senior figure appeared on camera to denounce the attack in its immediate aftermath. Secretary of State Tillerson ignored questions from reporters, and Trump went ahead with an address to building workers without mentioning it.

The language used by both Trump and his top officials changed significantly in the last 24 hours or so, however.

“What Assad did is terrible. What happened in Syria is truly one of the egregious crimes,” the President said while travelling to Florida on board Air Force One yesterday.

I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity, and he’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so I guess something should happen.

Trump’s comments came as Secretary of State Tillerson called explicitly for “a political process that would lead to Assad leaving”.

He added:

Assad’s role in the future is uncertain and with the acts that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.

A US official said the Pentagon was presenting the White House with a range of possible military options it could take in response to the attack.

Trump US China Rex Tillerson Source: Lynne Sladky

How did he announce the attacks?

Here is a transcript of Trump’s remarks last night, after ordering the massive missile strike against the Syrian base:

My fellow Americans: On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians.
Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.
Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.
There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council.
Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically. As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilise, threatening the United States and its allies.
Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.
We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world. We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed. And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will, in the end, prevail.
Goodnight. And God bless America and the entire world. Thank you.

- With reporting from AFP

Related: First US targeted missile strike on Assad regime kills six Syrian soldiers >

Also: ‘Aggression against a sovereign state’: Putin responds to Trump’s Syria strikes >

About the author:

Daragh Brophy

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