Trump statement on Syria chemical weapons: blame but no solutions

Map: Areas of control in Syria. Red is the Assad regime; Grey is the Islamic State; the other colors represent rebel factions. From Wikipedia.

Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad apparently used nerve gas in the Syrian war, killing civilians. The situation there remains impossible. Trump’s blame-filled statement can’t change that.

The six-year multilateral conflict in Syria features a murderous dictator backed by Russia, Islamic State terrorists, and “moderate” rebel factions backed by the U.S. — with civilians caught in the middle. It stumped Obama, and now it’s Trump’s problem.

Trump was going to solve this problem quickly. He has said that he knows more about ISIS than the generals do, and that he has a plan to rapidly defeat ISIS. But there is no fast solution in Syria.

Trump’s statement is full of anger and blame — but no solutions

Here’s what Trump said, with my commentary.

Statement from President Donald J. Trump

Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. 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. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.

What’s notable about this statement is the lack of forward thinking.

Like all statements of this kind, Trump’s starts with sympathy for the victims (but “cannot be ignored” is pretty weak.) Normally, what would come next is some sort of a plan — and Trump has asked his generals to work on one. But instead of “We’re going to defeat the Islamic State and fix the problem” or “We’ve asked Assad’s allies to force him to stop using chemical weapons,” we get blame for the last administration. Blaming the last guy is also typical, but it’s usually the spokesperson who says that, not the president.

Is Trump right? Is this Obama’s fault?

True, Obama’s administration did not stop Assad from using chemical weapons. But it’s not clear what he could have done. In 2013, Trump’s consistent position in tweets was that the U.S. should stay out of Syria. If we had indeed done nothing, either we’d be right where we are now, or Assad would have taken over the country, or the Islamic State would have beaten him. None of those alternatives are any better than where we are now.

Did Obama actually “do nothing” about chemical weapons? In fact, Obama and Russians, working together, actually got the Syrian regime to sign a treaty in 2013 and dispose of their chemical weapons. But now that Russia is aligned with Assad, it’s not helping hold the Syrians to the agreement. The Assad regime apparently has used chlorine gas in 2014 and 2015, and is now using nerve gas.


Why didn’t Trump ask his pal Putin to demand that Assad stop using chemical weapons? It would be in the best interests of Russia, the U.S., and the civilians of Syria. Instead we get blame, which helps no one.

Statements from a position of weakness are not a Trump strong point

Trump is right that Obama didn’t solve the problem in Syria. Former Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to negotiate a solution and failed. But I don’t think a lack of toughness was the problem.

When you’ve run as a tough guy, ineffectual is not something you can do well, hence the move to blame Obama. But it’s Trump’s problem now.

An honest president would say this:

  • We cannot defeat the Islamic State without putting American troops and Syrian civilians at risk, and you, the American public, do not have the stomach for more wars in the Middle East.
  • We cannot take down Assad without getting into a proxy war with his backers, Russia.
  • The humanitarian situation in Syria is terrible and there is very little we can do about it.

Barack Obama did not have the courage to make these statements of weakness, and Donald Trump certainly does not.

A creative leader might find a way out of this situation, but I cannot imagine what it would be.

Weakness and ineffectuality are not good places for Donald Trump. When he feels attacked, he lashes out. When we’re talking about a war, that scares me.

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  1. I am currently reading “The Arabs” by Eugen Rogan. In his discussion on Syria the twice disposed President of Syria Shukri al-Quwatli mentioned to Egypt’s Nasser in the 50’s. It is a difficult country to govern. He explained 50% of Syrians consider themselves national leaders, 25 % think they are prophets, and 10 % think they are gods. It is amazing to me how much western colonialism dictated the politics of the 18 and 19th century in the Middle East.

    As Mark Twain said “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

  2. Maybe the reason Trump didn’t suggest a plan to stop gas attacks was because he knew that any politically feasible plan would be futile. Perhaps, just for once, Trump had thought this through and decided not to lash out. So he said nothing. And intends doing nothing.

    Was Assad’s rule up to 2011 really no better than what has happened in Syria over the past nearly 6 years? Seems unlikely. He was a nasty tyrant, but deaths from his rule were limited and relatively few refugees fled from Syria.

    As for blame: surely the primary cause of the current chaos in Syria and North Africa was Obama’s misreading of the Arab Spring, and his misjudged, half-hearted efforts to encourage rebellion without adequate preparation for dealing with consequences. If one man can be blamed for a mess resulting in many thousands of deaths and millions of refugees fleeing Syria, that man is Barack Obama.

    Perhaps the people of Syria should be grateful for Trump’s restraint.