The grisly images from Douma, Syria, are unbearable to look at.
But no one should look away. Rather, people worldwide should bear witness to the dead and dying, including infants — victims of an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian armed forces.
“We’re talking about humanity and it can’t be allowed to happen,” President Donald Trump said during a Cabinet meeting on Monday.
These words were not the first from Trump on what should be labeled a war crime. On Sunday, he tweeted: “Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price…” (“…to pay,” he continued with his follow-on tweet, concluding with an appropriate description of the depravity: “SICK!”) Despite the “Animal Assad” nickname, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s homicidal terror knows no animal kingdom equivalent. He is a war criminal who should be held to account by the civilized world, which clearly doesn’t include the theocracy in Tehran, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin clique or Hezbollah, all of which have propped up Assad.
Trump signaled that he’ll decide soon on a potential military response. He’ll likely get no argument from new National Security Adviser John Bolton, an unrepentant Iraq war hawk. Trump would get no argument from us, either, presuming the response is appropriately scaled. Bolton has derided multilateral institutions, but hopefully he — and more important, Trump — will proceed cautiously and with the support of allies, be they NATO nations or Gulf countries countering the Tehran-Damascus axis.
A full NATO response is complicated by Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hosted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Putin to discuss the future of Syria last week. French President Emmanuel Macron, conversely, had previously indicated that Assad’s return to chemical weapons would cross a red line, so he and others may be inclined to share the responsibility along with the outrage over Douma.
Trump made much of former President Barack Obama backing away from his red line on the use of chemical weapons, conveniently forgetting that he — and many Republicans, including Bolton — did not support a strike at that time. And indeed it’s likely that Assad was emboldened by the U.S. hesitation — just as he may have been emboldened by Trump’s publicly stated desire to draw down U.S. troops from Syria, a proposal reportedly resisted by the Pentagon. In fact, such a move may not only send the wrong signal to Assad and his enablers, but to ISIS, which was used as justification for a U.S. troop presence in the first place.
When asked if Putin bore responsibility, Trump said: “He may and if he does it’s going to be very tough, very tough. Everybody’s going to pay a price. He will, everybody will.” Everybody should. And while it’s late, hopefully Trump’s naive assessment of Putin may finally be ending. It’s time to be realistic about Russia’s role in Assad’s war crimes.