The Messages Assad Received On Using Chemical Weapons

As Martin has already written, there is a case to be made for the targeted military strikes against Syria that the Trump administration authorized yesterday. While the president issued a statement about them last night that was somewhat muddled, it is important to keep in mind that this is not the first time Assad has used chemical weapons on his own people. He had launched a similar attack on August 21, 2013. Subsequently, President Obama gave an address to the nation making the same point that the use of chemical weapons required a response.

At the end of that speech, Obama referred to the diplomacy that was underway that could lead to an alternative to military strikes if Russia could persuade Syria to give up its chemical weapons. We all know that is ultimately what happened. And yet…Assad has used them once again. It might be helpful to consider why/how that happened.

Based on a UN Security Council resolution adopted in September 2013, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was tasked with coordinating the removal of these agents from Syria and declared  in June 2014 that they had all been shipped out of the country for destruction. But obviously Assad continued to produce sarin.

“There was never any indication that we didn’t get all the sarin in the 2014 elimination project,” said [Ambassador Laura] Holgate, who was part of the team that negotiated the disarming Syria of its chemical arms in 2014, together with Moscow…

“We may have gotten all of it, but they may have made more,” said Weber, who was part of the same Obama administration disarmament mission. “It’s a chemical synthesis process they obviously know how to do. Their entire [chemical warfare] program was indigenous.”

That is what we know about the “how,” but why would Assad decide to use these weapons now? That is a difficult question to answer. But some national security experts have suggested that he could have accomplished the same goals by using regular bombs. He used chemical weapons to send the signal that he could and would do anything. It is likely that he felt empowered to do so by messages from the Trump administration.

As I reported recently, in the days leading up to the chemical attack UN Ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters, “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” That was followed by Sec. of State Tillerson saying that Assad’s longer-term status “will be decided by the Syrian people.” Similarly, during the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly said that he really didn’t care about Assad.

DONALD TRUMP: Well you know Syria’s a whole different thing and you look at what’s happening. I view ISIS as very important. And I love the fact that Russia is hitting ISIS and as far as I’m concerned they’ve got to continue to hit ISIS…

O’DONNELL: So could you convince Putin to get Assad to step aside?

TRUMP: Well they’ve been trying to do that. Could I? I don’t think it’s that important to be honest with you.

But if we go back to statements Trump made the last time Assad used chemical weapons, the message that he wouldn’t need to worry about a response from this president is pretty clear:

Clear enough? Given that history, Assad must have been pretty surprised at the reaction from this president. The erratic nature of Donald Trump is a recipe for chaos and confusion — both here at home as well as abroad. The question is, will that continue when it comes to this administration’s policy on Syria?

To the extent that Secretary of State Tillerson speaks for the Trump administration, his remarks yesterday prior to the air strikes are worth noting:

To summarize, Tillerson said the following:

  1. Russia must reconsider their support for the Assad regime.
  2. Given Assad’s acts, there would seem to be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.
  3. The process by which Assad would leave requires an international effort to (1) defeat ISIS, (2) stabilize Syria, (3) work on a political process that would lead to Assad leaving.

Does any of that sound familiar? It should. Because Tillerson just articulated exactly the same strategy of the Obama administration. He had always been clear that defeating ISIS in Syria was the priority. Both Obama and John Kerry worked tirelessly with Russia and international partners to cohere around a strategy that would lead to a political process to replace Assad.

Because this White House is ruled by chaos, it is unclear at this point that they will be capable of a coherent strategy going forward. It could all come down to who Trump decides to listen to at any given moment. To the extent that choice comes down to his military advisors like McMaster and Mattis versus the inexperience of ideologues who don’t have a clue about the world, we might find ourselves hoping for the former.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .