The images were heartbreaking. One showed at least six children dead, their eyes still open, after a chemical weapons attack killed more than 100 people earlier this month in northern Syria’s Idlib Province. In another image, a distraught father carried the bodies of his dead twins. Many more showed children barely moving, clinging to life with each breath.
Images like these, broadcast around the world shortly after the attack, pushed President Trump to intervene against the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, whom the United States blamed for the tragedy.
“Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack,” Trump said right after retaliating with a missile strike on a Syrian airfield. “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
Trump also blamed President Obama for failing to stand up to Assad after the dictator crossed Obama’s notorious “red line” on using chemical weapons. In August 2013 Assad launched a sarin gas attack that killed about 1,400 civilians, including more than 400 children, on the outskirts of Syria’s capital, Damascus. (At the time Trump himself took to Twitter to urge Obama not to get involved.)
Now Trump has done what Obama would not by entering one of the most complicated conflicts in the world. For the last six years, Syria has been blasted to rubble by a civil war under the leadership of a brutal dictator (who is the son of the previous brutal dictator). Russia and Iran support Assad’s battle against a disorganized but relentless group of rebels, while the Islamic State has established a strong foothold in the region.
More than 250,000 people have been killed during the conflict, and at least 5 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, according to the United Nations. Now Trump has stepped into that minefield.
If he wants to follow the Powell Doctrine — the standard that Gen. Colin L. Powell set when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush — Trump now must explain to the American people how Syria is a threat to U.S. national security and what his exit strategy is.
The United States is already involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama avoided entering another major military conflict for eight years, despite recommendations from some of his advisers that he should act against Syria. But Trump, three months into his presidency, is already entangled there.
He quickly took the first step, but there are no easy decisions ahead. Overthrowing Assad would create a huge power vacuum. Is America willing to replace the Syrian regime and oversee the creation of an interim administration?
During Trump’s presidential campaign, he said that his priority was to destroy the Islamic State and prevent terrorist attacks in America and against Americans abroad, not to end the Syrian dictatorship. A new war would fundamentally change his administration’s agenda and would cost billions of dollars badly needed here at home for schools, infrastructure and health care.
The defense of Syrian children is praiseworthy. But the colossal irony is that those same children and their families wouldn’t be allowed to enter the United States as refugees if the immigration ban proposed by Trump were to be implemented. The ban, now stuck in court, applied to six Muslim-majority nations, including Syria.
Trump’s attack on Syria might inhibit some of his opponents from openly criticizing their dishonest, irascible commander-in-chief. But moments such as these are when the president’s credibility is essential. How can people have faith in Trump after his blatant lies about Obama’s place of birth, about the votes of 3 million undocumented immigrants and about the alleged wiretapping of Trump Tower, among many other falsehoods? If Trump can’t be trusted on these issues, can he be trusted on Syria?
This all comes down to credibility. People have to be able to believe Trump if he decides to make the case to start another war — and trusting him on such an important decision will be a new and difficult test.