Opinion |

Trump Just Did It

Trump drew the line against butcher Assad that Obama never did

Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
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Donald Trump with cabinet members at a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Palm Beach, Florida, April 7, 2017.
Donald Trump with cabinet members at a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Palm Beach, Florida, April 7, 2017.Credit: AP / Alex Brandon
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens

What should have been done years ago has been done by Donald Trump. Bashar Assad received a message delivered by 59 Tomahawk missiles that struck Syria’s Shayrat air base: The use of chemical weapons will not go unpunished. That was the base of the Syrian aircraft that attacked Khan Sheikhoun near Idlib with bombs containing lethal chemicals.

For six years the fighting has been going on: between Assad’s Syrian army aided by Iran and Hezbollah against a variety of rebel groups including the Islamic State and other Islamic extremists. It has led to the death of over half a million civilians and the flight of millions of refugees. Assad’s forces have deliberately targeted civilians with barrel bombs and chemical weapons. And the world has stood by while the carnage continued.

When Barack Obama, despite the warning he gave Assad against using chemical weapons, failed to act, he opened the door to Russian aircraft and troops to assist Assad in Syria. While neutralizing Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons represented no serious military challenge to the United States, the Russian presence obviously complicated the situation. Now any American action poses the risk of a confrontation with Russia. Trump was prepared to run that risk.

It was the pictures of little children suffering from the chemical-weapon attack that seem to have convinced him to take action. And who wouldn’t have been moved by these scenes of human suffering? It’s probably these scenes shown over and over on American television that explain the American people’s general support for Trump’s decision to attack, despite the inclination, shared by Trump, to stay out of foreign conflicts. Now it wasn’t a matter of helping one side or the other, but of saving lives.

As for Assad, who seemed to be finally gaining ground against the rebels with the help of the Russians and Iranians, why would he take the risk of using chemical weapons against civilians again? First, he felt confident of Russia’s backing. Second, he thought he had reason to believe that Trump, like Obama, would do nothing. He was right about Vladimir Putin and wrong about Donald Trump.

As for Trump, Assad must have been misled by Trump’s earlier remarks which were echoed by his UN ambassador Nikki Haley that he was intent on going after the Islamic State, so removing Assad, who was fighting ISIS, wasn’t on his agenda. Assad had no understanding about Trump’s concern for the lives of little children. That's a concern the Butcher of Damascus didn’t share. Nor for that matter did Putin.

The Egyptians used chemical weapons in Yemen in the ‘60s, and the Iraqis used them against the Iranians and Kurds in the ‘80s. Assad continued with this murderous tradition.

The readiness to strike a deal with a dictator like Assad is easy to understand. Once an agreement is reached he can be counted on to implement it. That’s why Putin preferred him to any of the rebel groups, some of which were certainly more likable than Assad. That’s why Trump at first saw him as a preferred partner in the fight against the Islamic State.

Some years ago Israel had been prepared to make a deal with Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father. He was a butcher like his son. He had killed 20,000 of his own people when he bombarded the city of Hama. But presumably Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak thought he could be counted on to implement any agreement that would be reached even if the majority of his people opposed peace with Israel.

Today nobody regrets that negotiations with him were never concluded. Even though sometimes a dictator may be the partner of choice, you better draw the line somewhere. And Trump decided to draw that line.

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