by Claude Salhani
Syria stands accused once again of using chemical agents against its civilian population. In this latest episode, at least 87people are reported to have been killed. The death toll is expected to rise.
After the incident, French President François Hollande called for new sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and US President Donald Trump condemned the attack and held Assad responsible. There were no immediate indications from the White House as to how, or even if, the United States would respond.
Trump said the attack in Syria’s Idlib province was “reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilised world”. He did not miss an opportunity to blame his predecessor, Barack Obama.
“These heinous actions by the Bashar Assad regime are a consequence of the last administration’s weakness and irresolution,” Trump said in a statement. “President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.”
The Syrian military denied responsibility for the attack and said it would never use chemical weapons.
Indications point to the use of sarin, US government sources said, and that it was “almost certainly” carried out by forces loyal to Assad.
“This is clearly a crime,” a US State Department official said. Those who support the Syrian regime “obviously have a lot to answer for,” the official said, taking aim at Russia and Iran.
Moscow and Tehran continue to provide military assistance to Damascus, without which Assad would have never been able withstand, as he has for more than six years, the war that has devastated the country.
The incident and Trump’s response and reaction to it could well be a godsend for his administration, helping the US president climb from his low approval ratings. Then again, it could also prove to be a double-edged sword, further hurting the Trump presidency.
This is one of the first major tests for the Trump team in foreign policy, an area in which neither Trump nor his closest advisers have real experience and are facing astute politicians such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, his Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov or an old fox, Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Muallem.
This development comes after the announcement that the Trump administration would no longer seek to oust Assad as a means to resolve the crisis in Syria. Instead, the United States announced it would focus on removing the bigger and most immediate threat posed by the Islamic State (ISIS).
Both US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said their focus in Syria was on stopping ISIS militants rather than pushing Assad to relinquish power. A senior Trump administration official told Reuters after the chemical attack that it was considering policy options in Syria but that they were limited and that the views expressed by Tillerson and Haley still held.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said this was Damascus’s way of testing the Trump administration and to see what sort of response the chemical attack would draw.
Syrian opposition officials said that the attack comes about as a “direct consequence” of the United States’ recent statement on Assad. That statement coincides with the position reiterated by two key US allies in the region, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Both indicated that eliminating the threat to the region posed by ISIS takes priority over replacing Assad.
Early in the Syria war, Obama insisted Assad had to leave power. In later years, Obama shifted his focus to the fight against ISIS militants, who captured large areas in Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Unless the Trump White House comes up with drastic changes in its policy regarding Syria, the current administration’s stance may prove to be no different than the one criticised by Trump.