WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump and his advisers saw the chemical attack in Syria as a test of his mettle as adversaries around the globe size up the new administration.
Trump, in public comments, highlighted the horrific images of Syrian children gassed to death by their own government. But internal White House deliberations focused on projecting an image of U.S. strength, according to officials familiar with the discussions.
It didn’t take long. The U.S. early Friday morning local time launched about 60 cruise missiles against the Syrian air base from which the U.S. believes the sarin gas attack originated days ago.
In a brief statement to reporters afterward, Trump said that he acted after Syrian President Bashar Assad “choked out the lives of helpless men women and children” and “even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered.”
“It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Trump added. “There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the chemical weapons conventions.”
The brazen nature of the poison gas attack added to its significance for Trump, as did Russia’s initial signal that it is standing by Assad, administration officials said. There also was the knowledge that North Korea may be watching the U.S. response to Syria for cues as the regime there calculates how far it can push with its missile and nuclear tests.
The response unfolded just as Trump takes on another delicate foreign policy challenge: his initial meeting on Thursday with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The missiles struck Syria as the president hosted the leader of America’s prime strategic and economic rival at Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.
Speaking shortly before the missile attack, Vladimir Safronkov, Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, warned any U.S. military action will have “negative consequences.”
“I was very frank in consultations in saying that first of all we have to think of negative consequences, and all responsibility of military action will be on the shoulders of those who initiated such doubtful and tragic enterprise,” Safronkov added.
Trump’s national security team was more concerned about the message that would be received by the rest of the world if he failed to act or, now having acted, fails to rally Congress and the U.S. public behind his response, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy debate.
While Trump repeatedly urged his predecessor not to attack Syria after the regime used chemical weapons against civilians in 2013 — saying so more than a dozen times on Twitter — he nonetheless criticized President Barack Obama for having drawn a “red line” at the use of gas and then failing to back it up. Now Trump had drawn his own line.
At a White House press conference on Wednesday, Trump said Assad’s April 4 chemical weapons attack, which killed more than 70 people including women and children, “crosses many, many lines, beyond red lines.” He added that “these heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.”
Obama’s justification for not imposing consequences after Assad’s forces used sarin gas on civilians in a Damascus suburb was that he cut a deal with Russia that in the end accomplished more than a military strike could have. Under it, Assad allowed international inspectors into the country to find and remove Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. The attack this week demonstrated Assad had reneged on his commitment and stripped away that rationale.
Trump spoke with Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster about the attack and U.S. options for a response, an administration official said.
Before the missile strike, Trump’s presidential election opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, indicated she would launch a military attack were she in the White House. “I believe we should have, and still should, take out his airfields and prevent him from being able to use them,” Clinton said at a Women in the World event in New York.
The chemical attack and the latest North Korea missile launch on Wednesday, just before Trump’s summit with Xi, “are the most serious challenges he’s had to face as president,” said Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state in President George W. Bush’s administration and now a Harvard University professor.
“He owns this,” Burns said. “President Obama is no longer the president and President Trump has to be the one that gives us a way forward.”
James Jeffrey, a former ambassador to Turkey under Bush and Iraq under Obama, said since the World War II era, there has been a “global, collective security, legal and economic world system” led by the U.S. and the United Nations, the relevance of which Trump starkly questioned in his presidential campaign. Now the twin crises in Syria and North Korea test how Trump actually views the global order and the U.S. interest in maintaining it.
“China and Russia seriously think at some point that they can take down this global order,” Jeffrey said. “Chaos and war and regional bullies like North Korea and Syria and Iran are basically assets in pulling this system down.”
Syria’s six-year civil war has only become more complex since Obama wrestled with Assad’s 2013 sarin gas attack. Russia intervened on Assad’s behalf in late 2015, adding to a fight that now includes Iranian, Turkish, Syrian and extremist forces.
While hundreds of U.S. special forces are already inside Syria, those troops are focused on targeting the Islamic State group.
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