Reports coming from Syria indicate that Bashar al Assad’s government has once again used chemical weapons on civilians in the worst attack of this kind since 2013. Dozens are dead and more than 200 are injured or sick due to the attack that struck in the northern province of Idlib on Tuesday morning.
Although the reports have not been independently verified, leaders from around the world aren’t hesitating to call out the Assad regime. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nicki Haley called Assad a “war criminal” who is protected by Russia and Iran. French President François Hollande accused Assad of a chemical weapons “massacre.”
This attack is yet another black mark on the international community and the UN, which have done little to stop Assad’s slaughter of the Syrian people. It may also prove to be President Trump’s first major foreign policy challenge since coming to office. But both Trump and the UN appear unlikely to take any significant steps toward ending Assad’s reign of terror.
Trump and Obama Agree Assad Is Syria’s Problem
On Friday, the Trump administration announced that ousting Assad was not a priority and that the focus in Syria would be fighting ISIS. According to additional statements made last week by Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Assad’s future must be up to the Syrian people.
This was reported as a shift in policy from the Obama administration. Technically this is true, but in reality the Obama administration held essentially the same view of Assad. While Obama kept up the rhetoric about a political transition of power, little indicates he would have been willing to spend the political and financial capital necessary to make this happen.
In a statement released Tuesday, Trump said, “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.” He’s not wrong. President Obama drew his famous line in the sand in 2012, saying that if Assad used chemical weapons the United States would take military action. Assad did exactly that, and Obama did nothing.
The chemical weapons deal that followed in 2013 relied on Assad’s voluntary surrender of his chemical weapons stockpile. It also relied on Russia, which negotiated the deal, being an honest broker. It was no surprise when reports began to come in 2014 that the Syrian government was once again using chemical weapons on its people. Assad knew there would be no consequences.
After that, Obama continued to call for Assad’s removal from power, but nothing solid materialized, just years of hapless negotiations between Syria, Russia, and Secretary of State John Kerry, all of which came to nothing. These were essentially just stalling tactics to buy Assad time to consolidate power.
Trump Has Given No Indication He’ll Change Course
But Trump appears unlikely to do things much differently than Obama. Assad’s position is now stronger than it was during Obama’s red line crisis, and the resistance has been significantly diminished. The Syrian government has also secured Russia as an ally, making significant opposition to Assad much more fraught. Any action against Assad would also be an act against Russia.
If Trump were to move toward ousting Assad, something he was outspokenly against in 2013, he would need to be prepared to put pressure on Russia to stand down, or be ready to engage its military directly. Trump would have to be the tough international leader he tried so hard to convince Americans he would be.
But although Trump has recently increased troop deployments to Syria, he’s made it clear that he doesn’t want to be heavily involved in the Middle East in a military capacity. If that’s the case, it seems most likely that he will do just what his predecessor did—nothing.
Trump will then have to learn the hard way that, when it comes to international politics, hard-ball players like Russia and Iran only respect power and strength. If Trump does nothing in the face of ongoing atrocities in Syria, he will be signaling, much like Obama did in 2013, that the United States isn’t interested in getting bogged down in other countries’ problems—even it means letting thousands of people die. Both men believe that the United States should be doing less in other countries, albeit for somewhat different ideological reasons.
To be sure, this reflects the general view of the American public. There’s little appetite or political will for another foreign war along the lines of Iraq, and understandably so. Interventions are never clear-cut, even humanitarian ones, and extraction from the situation is always complicated. If Trump did think intervening in Syria were in America’s best interests, his task would be to persuade the American people of this, something he’s unlikely to do.
Syrians Shouldn’t Expect UN Help, Either
If Trump does stick to his policy of leaving Assad in place, then the only other power that might intervene would be the UN. But this isn’t a comforting notion, since the UN is frequently ineffectual during international and human rights crises. This is due in no small part to the fact that China and Russia are permanent members on the UN Security Council.
Take, for example, when Assad was indiscriminately bombing civilians in eastern Aleppo in December. Russia and China both vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that called for a ceasefire. The UN’s hands were tied. The only thing the international body seems capable of agreeing on is condemning Israel. In fact, in 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a total of 24 resolutions. Of these, 20 had to do with Israel.
But stopping an authoritarian leader from massacring innocent civilians is the one thing the UN should be doing. It is their primary purpose. If they can’t or won’t take substantive action when something like persistent use of chemical weapons against civilians occurs, then what is the point of the organization?
Assad is acting with impunity because he knows the international community won’t do a thing to stop him. The United States and UN have proven that. He’s also banking on the Trump administration doing little more than adopting some anemic sanctions reminiscent of the Obama years.
Assad is stronger now than he was four years ago, and he has powerful friends who care little about international pressure or scorn. He’s feeling untouchable. What a frightening prospect for the Syrian people.