President Donald Trump vowed on Monday to decide on a course of action very soon, perhaps by the end of the day, in response to Saturday’s chemical attack in Douma, Syria. He has denounced the attack, on Twitter, as “SICK” and an “atrocity,” vowing that there would be a “big price to pay.” It’s more or less pointless, though, to try to predict how the president will actually respond.
For one thing, Trump’s views can shift wildly. He once suggested a willingness to partner with the Syrian leader he now calls “Animal Assad” to fight ISIS but shifted gears dramatically after last year’s chemical attack, which led to U.S. airstrikes.
It’s not like Trump is changing his views on the basis of actual changes on the ground. Assad has been just as much of a murderous war criminal, and Russia just as much an enabler of his crimes, as they have respectively been for years now.
As with last year’s attack, images of chemical weapons use against civilians, particularly children, is clearly—to use a very tired phrase—a “red line” for Trump. The president criticized Barack Obama on Sunday for failing to enforce his own red line on the issue years ago, and perhaps the desire to distinguishing himself from his predecessor may be one factor motivating him. But on the other hand, Assad’s regime has been consistently ramping up its use of chlorine gas on civilian targets for months now, even as Trump was suggesting that, with ISIS defeated, the U.S. could just let “other people” take care of Syria.
Trump has not generally given the impression that he cares inordinately about civilian casualties. His administration has removed many of the safeguards and oversight mechanisms meant to protect civilians in U.S. airstrikes—with predictable consequences—and apparently he wants to go further. On the 2016 campaign trail, Trump famously vowed to “take out” the families of terrorists. According to a recent Washington Post article, he once asked the CIA’s head of drone operations why the agency had bothered to wait until a target left his family’s house before striking him. Chemical weapons use aside, the brutal logic that seems to be guiding Assad’s government and its Russian backers in these recent attacks on the eastern Ghouta region—wipe out the militants as fast as possible, regardless of the civilian casualties—isn’t all that different.
In addition to Trump’s shifting and often contradictory views, predicting the administration’s actions is also difficult given that those views often have no more than a tangential relationship to the policies being carried out under name. Last week the president was vowing to pull troops out of Syria at literally the same moment his chief envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition was vowing that they would stay in the country for the long haul and U.S. troops themselves were working to fortify their positions.
Trump’s national security team is also in flux, with John Bolton in the midst of quite a first day on the job as national security adviser and Mike Pompeo set to begin his confirmation hearings for secretary of state later this week. Thus far, nothing the administration has done—Trump’s tweets, suggestions that military options are being considered, calls for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council—would have been out of character under former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Pompeo and Tillerson are both considered hawks, but there’s reason to doubt that either supports a long-term U.S. presence to counter Assad in Syria. After all, Bolton is a noted skeptic of nation-building and humanitarian intervention while it was Pompeo who suspended the CIA program providing aid to anti-Assad rebels last summer.
Beyond whatever decisions are being made in Washington, the situation on the ground in Syria is also becoming ever more complex and unpredictable. This was exemplified last weekend by an apparent Israeli airstrike on an airbase in central Syria that reportedly killed 14 people including Iranians. Alarmed by the growing Iranian and Hezbollah presence in the country, Israel has fired inside Syria more than 100 times since 2012, and this most recent strike does not appear to have been related to the latest chemical attack.
At this point, the “war in Syria” is really at least four wars being fought in different parts of the country: the remaining rebel factions, both “moderate” and jihadi, vs. the Assad government; the U.S.-led coalition and its mainly Kurdish allies vs. the remnants of ISIS; the Kurds, backed to some extent by both the U.S. and Assad, vs. Turkish backed forces; Israel vs. Iran and its proxies.
Trump is right that the operations against ISIS are coming to a close, though it’s not clear the group’s sympathizers could ever completely be eliminated. But the other three conflicts seem set to only worsen, no matter how Trump responds in the next 24–48 hours.