“I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria…we hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will, in the end, prevail.”
Those are the words of an American president who launched military strikes against the Syrian regime after pictures of babies gasping for air under grey medical blankets seized the world’s attention and punctured international indifference to the Syrian civil war, now entering its seventh year.
The speaker is not Barack Obama, the president who won the Nobel Prize and argued for ‘just wars,’ but his successor, Donald Trump, who tried to keep Muslims and Syrian refugees out of America.
Overnight, those who worked to convince the Obama administration to act against Assad — especially from Foggy Bottom — are watching Trump do what Obama would not: act decisively against the regime and send the message that more will not be tolerated. They sound as shocked as anyone that it was Trump who carried out the path they counseled.
“This shows the moral depravity of the last administration,” said one former Obama administration official. “I am stunned.”
“Many of us are pretty darned happy about this, ” said a second former administration official. “This is the action that many of us were hoping for years ago. Our hope though is that this was not an act in isolation, but a clear signal of the limits of our tolerance, and the restart of meaningful, actionable diplomacy to end Assad’s tenure in Syria and bring about a peaceful political transition.”
“It was high time,” said James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq who called the strikes a “measured and reasonable response to repeated violations of UN resolutions.”
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For years, those inside the Obama administration who pushed, pleaded, and urged greater intervention argued that the U.S. had to weigh the cost of inaction and the risks of intervening. In meeting after meeting, month after month, they argued that doing nothing in the face of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s escalating attacks against his people would not end well for the Syrian people or the United States. Never could they guarantee the president that intervening would not make the situation on the Syrian ground worse. Or that the unintended consequences would not outweigh the known benefits. Then Mosul fell and ISIS became the focus. Policy went, de facto, from “the time has come for Assad to step aside” to Assad can stay, for the moment.
And now, all of the pro-intervention arguments are about to be tested; that humanitarian intervention was in America’s security interest, that Assad’s escalation must be answered so that impunity was not the outcome and further escalation didn’t occur, that air strikes against Assad would not immediately draw Russia into war with the United States and irreversibly entangle America in yet another war in the Middle East it could not end.
“There is a sense of relief and justice to those innocent children suffered terrible death in Khan Shaikhun.” said Dr. Zaher Sahloul of the Syrian American Medical Society, who spoke last summer before the United Nations about the plight of Syrian parents and children under siege in Aleppo. Sahloul had praised Obama’s UN Ambassador Samantha Power for being the “voice of the voiceless” and lobbied her administration colleagues for greater humanitarian intervention on behalf of Aleppo’s children. “The question is how come it took one chemical attack to change the heart of President Trump and move him to military action, while President Obama was so stone-hearted and resistant to the horrible images of tens of thousands of innocent victims ? I hope that this attack will open the door to the end of the genocide in Syria and force political transition in Syria.”
Jeffrey says that the president who has questioned the post-World War II order is now the one who is upholding it.
“It’s Trump, whatever his many other flaws, who stands tonight in the shadow of twelve American Presidents between 1940 and 2008,” Jeffrey says. “It’s Obama who stepped out of that shadow and, with much help from Putin, Xi, and their Pyongyang, Tehran, and Damascus helpers, have torn apart the international order.”
Of course the questions are of what comes next: Will this intervention place at far greater risk the safety and lives of American service members on the ground in Syria?
What will Russia do? And can it reign in Assad, keep him from escalating the tit-for-tat and maintain the uncomfortable coexistence of U.S., Russian, and Syrian forces on the ground in the fight against ISIS?
None of this is clear. The answers will surface only in the coming days. But what is now a known-known is that the U.S. has for the first time since the Syrian civil war began in 2011 intervened militarily against the Assad regime.
U.S. diplomats for the last few years urged Syrian opposition leaders to hold on until the next administration. They said that they would do all they could under the next president to push for greater intervention since it had become obvious Obama did not want to get further involved. Only they never really imagined that two facts could coexist: 1) that they would be right; and 2) that that next president who did more to take on Assad would be Donald Trump.