World·Analysis

'Beyond a red line': Syria attack tests Trump's changing foreign-policy attitude

The deadly suspected chemical attack in Syria is forcing U.S. President Donald Trump to reconsider his isolationist "America First" agenda. Complex world events require him to reckon with the same global problems that dogged his predecessor, Barack Obama.

'I now have responsibility,' U.S. president concedes in confronting his 1st major global crisis

An injured child, left, receives treatment in a field hospital after airstrikes by forces allegedly loyal to the Syrian government. U.S. President Donald Trump, right, speaks during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (EPA)

Donald Trump's words seemed to be spiked with an implicit threat, one that would signal a sharp turnaround for a president keen to keep America out of messy world affairs.

As the crush of media packed up to be shepherded out of the Oval Office on Wednesday, reporters shouted a parting question to the U.S. president: How would his administration respond to the previous day's suspected sarin chemical attack that killed scores of women, children and men in Syria's northwest?

Trump, who until now has made defeating ISIS his main international goal, gave a vague but ominous answer.

"You'll see."

His response came as the world continues to look to the U.S. to confront one of the biggest foreign-policy trials of Trump's young administration.

Only days before the attack, suspected to have been perpetrated by the government of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, the Trump administration reiterated it was not committed to ending Assad's rule.

Now, it seems complex world events are forcing some re-evaluation of Trump's agenda while complicating his vision for a domestic-centred "America First" presidency. Asked about taking ownership of the Syria crisis, Trump acknowledged at a press conference in the White House Rose Garden that "I now have responsibility."

It's already happening that my attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much- U.S. President Donald Trump

This presents a "major first test" for Trump in handling a global atrocity, said Jonathan Schanzer, a Mideast specialist with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

"It's one of the more pressing crises that certainly puts the need for a decision on Syria policy on fast forward."

Schanzer suggested that "a complacent Assad," perhaps believing the U.S. administration was no longer bent on ousting him, may have felt emboldened to launch the attack due to the non-interventionist "Trump position."

At a press conference in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, Trump's avowed isolationism appeared to fade as he spoke about the Syria attack. "It crossed a lot of lines for me," he said. "When you kill innocent children, innocent babies ... that crosses many, many lines. Beyond a red line."

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley gavels a United Nations Security Council at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The "red line" reference was a callback to former president Barack Obama's comments — and subsequent inaction — in 2013, when he said the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would amount to a "red line" atrocity warranting military action.

Trump routinely mocked Obama during last year's election for the "red line" remark, despite himself tweeting opposition to military intervention in Syria in 2013.

Four years later, Trump is being forced to reckon with the same Syria problem that his predecessor said still haunts him.

Images from Syria this week showed convulsing bodies, people frothing at the mouth and victims whose pupils had shrunk to the size of a pencil tip. Trump told reporters on Wednesday the gas attack "had a big impact on me."

"I will tell you, it's already happening that my attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much."

Even so, his initial reaction condemning Tuesday's attack reserved some of its harshest words for Obama, faulting him for allowing the Syrian crisis to escalate. With 24 hours of reflection behind him, Trump on Wednesday accused Assad of ordering the "heinous" attack.

But it was only a week ago that United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley commented that the government did not consider it a priority to remove Assad from power. That same day, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the long-term status of Assad should "be decided by the Syrian people," a contrast with the previous administration's repeated demands for Assad's removal.

Assad is a 'political reality we have to accept'

This week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the Syrian dictator was a "political reality we have to accept."

Those positions aligned with a kind of diplomacy that de-emphasizes foreign engagement and a focus on human rights abroad.

"My job is not to represent the world," Trump reminded Congress in a speech last month, a foreign-policy doctrine that allowed for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to make his first visit to the White House this week. Obama had refused to meet the Egyptian leader due to concerns about human-rights abuses.

Children who survived a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria wait for treatment in a field hospital in rebel-held Douma, Syria. (EPA)

The president may find himself plunging deeper into foreign affairs whether he likes it or not, particularly as his administration deals with Syria, prepares for a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and monitors the latest sabre-rattling from North Korea, which launched another missile Wednesday.

"Trump is now learning that events come at you very fast in life," said Steve Walt, a U.S. foreign policy analyst who teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School. "With Syria, you can see him reverting to a lot of default conditions of U.S. foreign policy — that we are not, in fact, totally indifferent to the use of chemical weapons; that large-scale human-rights abuses are something of a problem."

Now that Trump is confronting the same dilemmas as Obama, Walt said "he'll find that there are no attractive responses; no American policy that doesn't come attached to some big cost."

Former U.S. President Barack Obama, shown in a 2013 photo, addresses the nation about the situation in Syria from the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Evan Vucci/Reuters)

A major diplomatic collision with Russia has already begun. Haley has spoken out strongly at the UN indicating the U.S. might "take our action" in Syria, but the Kremlin denies Assad's regime carried out the attacks.

Haley asked the UN: "How many more children have to die before Russia cares?"

Has Trump painted himself into a corner?

Trump declined to elaborate on Wednesday about a planned response in Syria, reasoning it would not be wise to tip his hand. He may have already painted himself into a corner, said Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank.

"By saying, 'beyond a red line,' he has essentially committed himself to doing something."

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview in Damascus, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA. (SANA, Reuters)

If it comes down to airstrikes, it will have to be a nimble exercise, as Syria has the protection of sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft systems, he noted.

"If you're going to hit them despite the Russian systems, are you going to risk the Russians firing on you? And if they do, what does that do to your buddy-buddy relationship with Russia?"

It will be a tricky calculus.

"Washington explicitly said they don't have a beef with Assad. And now Assad walks the White House into a choice that Trump did not want to make," Barkey said. "Whatever it is Trump is going to do now, it's not something he wants to do."

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.