Why trump’s threat to make assad pay a “big price” rings hollow the new yorker

The global uproar is familiar. Another chemical-weapons attack in Syria—reportedly killing more than forty and injuring hundreds more, including toddlers, in Douma—sparks a repugnant sense of déjà vu as an increasingly deadly civil war enters its eighth year. In words, at least, the West is on the right side of history. On Sunday, President Trump tweeted furiously about an “atrocity” that he called “mindless” and “sick.” He lashed out at Russian President Vladimir Putin—with rare specificity—and at Iran for supporting “Animal Assad,” the Syrian President. Trump even blamed former President Obama for not doing more after he imposed a “red line” on Syria’s use of chemical weapons, in 2012.


Trump, putting his Administration in a similar position, warned that there will be a “big price to pay”for the attack. European governments and human-rights groups followed suit, and nine of the fifteen members of the U.N. Security Council called for an urgent meeting. But, for the U.S., there are few targets in Syria that Russia and Iran could not rebuild with their much more sizable presence in the country. After Trump’s cruise-missile attack on a Syrian air base, last spring, the local governor announced that the damage had been repaired and flights had resumed several days after the strike.

The only action that would change the course of the war is a “massive U.S.-led military intervention against Assad that would carry all kinds of military risks,” Robert Ford, the last U.S. Ambassador to Syria, told me. “Assad is going nowhere, and the war just grinds on.”

Even getting Assad to stop using chemical weapons would require a sustained campaign, Ford and Hof said. “If the U.S. did a series of strikes that were painful to Assad—taking out planes or communications—every single time he drops chemical weapons, whether chlorine or sarin, my sense is that he’d stop it after a while,” Ford told me. “But it’d have to be a series over weeks and months before his behavior would change. Syria will test and test and test the envelope. They may stop for a week or two or three; then they’ll test again.”

Both the Obama and Trump Administrations have avoided deep intervention in Syria’s civil war, engaging largely in only a slice of it—the fight against ISIS, beginning when it seized a third of Syria and a third of Iraq to create the Islamic State, in 2014. Even that effort has flagged. Just last week, Trump ordered his generals to arrange a rapid exit of the two thousand U.S. troops who have been advising the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of rebels fighting ISIS in the northeast.

Trump faces pressure to act. “It’s a defining moment in his Presidency,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “If he doesn’t follow through and live up to that tweet, he’s going to look weak in the eyes of Russia and Iran.” He said that Trump needs to “show a resolve that Obama never did to get this right.” Senator John McCain was more critical. “President Trump last week signalled to the world that the United States would prematurely withdraw from Syria,” he said. “Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers have heard him.”

Trump won widespread praise for last year’s military strike, which came after a chemical-weapons attack on civilians in Khan Sheikhoun killed almost a hundred people and injured nearly six hundred. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, verified that Syria had used sarin nerve gas, which is banned by international treaty.

Since then, Syria has allegedly weaponized chlorine in bombs that have been dropped in several places. The United States has not responded militarily to any of those attacks. But the reporting from Douma—rescuers finding civilians dead in their homes from suffocation, pictures showing small children struggling to breathe—has galvanized global attention.

“This isn’t just the United States,” Thomas Bossert, Trump’s homeland-security adviser, said on ABC. “This is one of those issues on which every nation, all peoples, have all agreed and have agreed since World War II. It’s an unacceptable practice.” In terms of a U.S. response, Bossert said all options are now on the table. “These are horrible photos. We’re looking into the attack at this point.”

Douma is totally cut off from the outside world by the Syrian military, making verification of the weaponry, casualty count, and source of the attack extremely difficult. The images have come from Douma residents, Syrian human-rights groups, and the White Helmets, a team of civilian volunteers who have been nominated for a Nobel Prize for their rescue work. The blistering weekend attack followed the breakdown, on Friday, of negotiations between rebels and the government to evacuate fighters from Douma, end the military siege, and allow the government to restore its authority. On Sunday, Syrian state media reported that rebels had agreed to give up their last foothold in Ghouta, in the eastern suburbs of the sprawling Syrian capital. A truce could have an impact on the momentum of a U.S. military response.

In a statement, the Russian foreign ministry called claims of a chemical-weapons attack a “hoax” designed to protect “terrorists.” It said, “We have warned of such dangerous provocations many times before. The purpose of these false conjectures, which are without any basis, is to shield the terrorists and the irreconcilable radical opposition, which reject a political settlement while trying to justify possible military strikes from outside.”

Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, called on Trump to reconsider his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. She also urged him to take the unprecedented step of imposing sanctions on Moscow for its long-standing aid to Damascus. “Last time this happened, the President did a targeted attack to take out some of the facilities,” she said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “That may be an option that we should consider now, but it is further reason why it is so important that the President ramp up the pressure and the sanctions on the Russian government, because without the support of Russia I do not believe that Assad would still be in office.”