In just 24 hours this week, President Trump found himself facing a pair of worrying foreign crises with no easy options in sight.
The forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad reportedly deployed chemical weapons against innocent Syrian citizens in the northern city of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, a rebel-held area.
News accounts describe victims writhing in pain and struggling to breathe, with dying children choking, gasping and foaming at the mouth. The victims were exposed to suspected nerve gas after Syrian warplanes dropped bombs in an early-morning raid. Russia, Syria’s ally, said it was not proved that the Assad regime was responsible, but top Trump administration officials said there was little doubt that Syria was to blame.
This chemical attack appears to be the worst in Syria since August 2013, when Mr. Assad used sarin gas to kill more than 1,000 people in the suburbs of Damascus. The horrifying pictures and video of this latest attack spread around the world overnight. Wednesday morning, Bassma Kodmani, a Syrian academic and former spokeswoman of the anti-Assad Syrian National Council, told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that the bombers were “Russian-made” but had “Syrian pilots.”
Almost four years ago, Moscow promised that all of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles had been removed from the country, a promise that was either a lie at that time or a promise that was broken as new weapons were brought it.
Mr. Assad, with the help of the Russians and the Iranians, retook Aleppo in December, a conquest that Mr. Assad has called “as much a victory for Russia and Iran and it is for his own country.” Mr. Assad called retaking Aleppo a “basic step on the road to ending terrorism in the whole of Syrian territory and creating the right circumstances for a solution to end the war.”
But in a forceful condemnation of the attack, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said, “We think that [Mr. Assad] has been a hindrance to peace for a long time. He’s a war criminal. What he’s done to his people is nothing more than disgusting.”
But the sharp words can’t conceal the fact that no easy solution to the Syrian challenge is available to the Trump White House.
Blaming the feckless previous administration’s inaction and failure to enforce President Obama’s “red line” warning may be comforting, but this international crisis has landed on Mr. Trump’s desk. What matters now is what he will do about it.
Will he enforce a no-fly zone inside Syria to protect refugees? Will he arm the anti-Assad Syrian rebels? Will he support bringing a war crimes indictment against Mr. Assad? Will he demand that Russia and Iran leave Syria? Will his administration now insist that Mr. Assad must leave and that the U.S. will remain committed to achieving that end?
Even as that crisis was exploding, Mr. Trump was preparing to receive Chinese President Xi Jinping for two days of bilateral meetings at Mar-a-Lago starting Thursday, the first time the two world leaders will meet face to face. Again, Mr. Trump will face a delicate diplomatic challenge at a time when global events are pressing in.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi meet as North Korea has again fired a ballistic missile into the East Sea/Sea of Japan, at least the seventh such test launch in the past year.
In response, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a terse and mysterious 23-word statement saying, “North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”
This is the same Mr. Tillerson who in Seoul, South Korea, on March 19 warned that “all options are on the table” with North Korea, a statement that makes clear that military action is being considered.
North Korean instability is a greater threat to China than it is to the U.S. So far, Beijing has been unwilling to take specific and credible steps to pressure the North Korean regime to abandon its nuclear program.
Will Mr. Trump effectively trade real Chinese action on North Korea for some concession that China wants? Will the U.S. take other effective steps to deter North Korea? What are the options, and what is the risk of military action?
It is not unusual for new presidents to be tested internationally in their first months in office. But Mr. Trump is facing simultaneous international crises of unusual urgency and complexity.
• Matt Mackowiak is the president of Austin-based Potomac Strategy Group, a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran, and a former press secretary to two U.S. senators. He is the host of a national politics podcast, “Mack on Politics,” produced in partnership with The Washington Times. His podcast can be found at washingtontimes.com/mackonpolitics.
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