Donald Trump brought the United States even closer to full-scale intervention in the Syrian conflict this week, with a direct threat of force against Syria’s President Bashar Assad’s regime. His move put the U.S. on a collision course with Russia.
The American president’s aggressive posturing and military actions are taking many by surprise. He had campaigned on a vehement anti-war stance (except for when it came to bombing ISIS), had promised to work with Russia in Syria, and had been a fierce critic of any U.S. involvement in Syria during President Barack Obama’s administration.
Trump’s first foray into Syria came on April 7, when he ordered a Tomahawk missile strike on a Syria’s Shayrat airfield in response to a sarin attack that killed more than 70 people, including civilians. Russia immediately condemned the attack. Trump however received high approval ratings in the U.S., since many Americans were moved by the horrific images (as was Trump) coming out of Syria after the chemical attack, which added to the near half-million dead in Syria’s devastating six-year civil war.
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Since the Tomahawk strike, tensions between the U.S., Russia and Assad continued to escalate. Then on June 19, a U.S. warplane shot down a Syrian army jet in the countryside near Raqqa. Washington said the Syrian jet had dropped bombs near U.S. backed forces.
Russia quickly declared that an “act of aggression” and threatened to shoot down any aircraft in its area of operation in Syria.
The U.S. and Russia (and Israel) had previously been coordinating operations over Syria in an effort to avoid any potential clashes or accidental run-ins.
A mere two days later, a U.S. F-15E fighter jet shot down an Iranian-made Shahed 129 pro-regime drone. The U.S. said the drone was armed and in firing range of U.S. troops. The downing of the drone marked the fifth time since late May the U.S. military has bombed pro-Syrian forces in southern Syria.
These various escalations have led political observers both inside and outside the Beltway to dub the Syrian conflict: Trump’s War.
‘No more stupid wars’
Trump’s course change in Syria was a sudden one. As recently as March 30, the Trump administration had been saying the U.S. government has shifted position regarding Syria and would no longer push for Assad’s removal.
But just five days later, on April 4, the Trump White House released a statement showing a change of heart: "These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.”
MSNBC's Greta Van Susteren quickly called out the sudden U-turn. "A few years ago, in the midst of the debate whether President Obama should use force in Syria, then Mr. Trump, now President Trump, had a different opinion," Susteren said on her April 4 show. "In a tweet, then Mr. Trump said, quote, ‘President Obama, do not attack Syria.’ "
Trump himself explained the change on April 5: "My attitude on Syria and Assad has changed very much, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me."
However, Trump has a long history of denouncing intervention in Syria to walk back. "President Obama's weakness and indecision may have saved us from doing a horrible and very costly (in more ways than money) attack on Syria!" he tweeted September 1, 2013.
On October 26, 2016, while campaigning against Hillary Clinton in the general election, Trump spoke at length about not intervening in Syria. "What we should do is focus on ISIS. We should not be focusing on Syria," said Trump as he dined on fried eggs and sausage at his Trump National Doral golf resort, as Reuters reported.
"You’re going to end up in World War Three over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton,” he blasted.
"You’re not fighting Syria any more, you’re fighting Syria, Russia and Iran, all right? Russia is a nuclear country, but a country where the nukes work as opposed to other countries that talk," he continued.
A history of flip-flops
Trump’s Syria reversal is not his first flip-flop when it comes to U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Check facting website Politifact deemed Trump’s September 2016 statement "I was totally against the war in Iraq,” completely false.
“While he came to that position when the war became difficult, earlier on he was more accepting of military action. In 2002, asked if America should go to war, he said, ‘I guess so,’” concluded the fact checkers.
Trump tried to rewrite his support for the war in Iraq as he made non-interventionism a major part of his platform, taking a position that was often compared to that of hard-left presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. "Going into Iraq, it may have been the worst decision anybody has made, any president has made, in the history of this country. That's how bad it is," Trump said on February 18, 2016.
In fact, Trump has been consistent about something else: his position on Iran. His U-turn on Syria can be understood in the context of his animosity to Tehran (and love affair with Saudi Arabia). Reports coming out of the White House say Iran hawks in the Trump administration are pushing the president to escalate in Syria. According to the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, these hawks want to broaden the Syrian conflict in order to pit the U.S. against Iran, one of Assad’s major backers. Trump wants to do that anyway.