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Trump's Conundrum: What Policy Will He Adopt After the Bombing?

When Donald Trump ordered a Tomahawk missile strike on the air base where Bashar-al Assad's planes left with their lethal payload, he took the strong action which Barack Obama failed to take in 2013. Trump was correct when he said Assad's latest atrocity was a "consequence of the past administration's weakness and irresolution," which had "created a sense of impunity for the Assad regime." Unlike Obama, Trump was serious when he said that Assad's use of sarin gas was a red line that called for a tough U.S. response.

However, when Assad used these grotesque weapons of mass destruction in 2013, Trump called on Obama to do just the opposite. In his tweets, Trump urged President Obama not to get involved in the Syrian conflict and insisted that congressional approval would be needed before any military response could take place.

Only a few days ago, he seemed to be of the same mind, until he wasn’t.  A day before the strike,  Ambassador Nikki Haley told the UN that there would not be a policy to remove Assad from power, and Secretary of State Tillerson  had said that the “longer-term status of President [Bashar] Assad… will be decided by the Syrian people,” which seems like a cruel joke. At his daily press conference, Sean Spicer confirmed that approach and said that “with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.”

That view was certainly compatible with Trump’s pro-Russian approach; i.e., a desire to forge an alliance with Russia to fight ISIS, even though Putin is the main supporter and supplier of weapons to both the Assad regime in Syria and to the mullahs who rule Iran. And the world knows that Putin was never fighting ISIS in Syria; he allowed Aleppo to be destroyed for one reason: it was a rebel stronghold where ISIS was not even present. Putin’s only goal was to prop up Russian power in the region. Now Russia has responded to the air attack by denying that Assad used any chemical weapons, and by condemning the U.S. military response as a violation of international law and as an act of aggression.

Trump said Assad’s sarin gas attack and the pictures of suffering and dying babies led him to change his mind and order the air attack. Given the U.S.’s failure to act in the past, few expected Trump’s swift  military response, least of all Assad, who believed he had free rein to terrorize, destroy, murder, and dispossess as many Syrians as he liked by any means he desired.

Indeed, at Mar-a-Lago this weekend, Trump reiterated that it was in the “vital national-security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” He added: “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.”