For the longest time, Donald Trump has disparaged U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, mocked his rival’s strategy in Syria, and unequivocally stated that America’s enemy in the country was terror group ISIS, not President Bashar al-Assad.
Then on Friday, with little warning, Trump, as U.S. president, launched airstrikes against Syria, the first direct U.S. assault on Assad’s regime in six years of civil war, abruptly changing course of his country’s involvement in Syria and his own rhetoric about the conflict.
The reason for Trump’s turnaround was ostensibly the suspected chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun that killed at least 70 people, including children. “Nobody expected Trump, of all people, to wage a campaign to avenge Syrian children — who, after all, aren’t even allowed to come into the United States as refugees,” drily noted Politico Magazine.
But across the world, many foreign newspaper reporters puzzled over Trump’s involvement and whether Assad was responsible for the suspected chemical attack.
"Why would Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad attack civilians with banned chemical weapons when he's ‘winning’ the civil war that's been devastating Syria since 2011, knowing this atrocity would make the international community call for his head?" wondered Patrícia Campos Mello, a U.S. correspondent for Brazilian daily Folha de S. Paulo.
“The American president […] wants to keep his tough guy image,” she writes. “Trump stands to win from attacking Assad, who's protected by [Russian President] Vladimir Putin. At a time when Trump's government is the target of several investigations over Russian interference in the presidential election, it's a good way to demonstrate ‘independence’ from the Kremlin."
Nobody expected Trump, of all people, to wage a campaign to avenge Syrian children.
Correspondent Georges Malbrunot writes in French newspaper Le Figaro that there is still no evidence of Assad’s responsibility in the attack and wonders about Syrian president’s possible motive. The chemical attack, he says, places Assad “in a difficult position regarding his Russian ally, and just when the United States had ceased to make his departure ‘a priority’.”
In both their stories, Mello and Malbrunot explore the possibility of radicals in Assad’s ranks being behind the attack without their boss’s knowledge, possibly because of their resentment of Russia calling the shots in Syria and to disobey Kremlin’s orders not to use chemical weapons.
So far, most Western governments have blamed Assad for the horrific assault.
In France, an Elysée palace communiqué quickly accused the Syrian regime of “its obvious responsibility in this massacre" even as an editorial in the French weekly Challenges held up Russia’s claim as plausible — that the gas contamination was the result of a rebel chemical weapons depot being struck by Syrian government airstrikes.
Even Trump’s allies are voicing concern.
Whoever was behind the attack, Christoph Sydow, in German newspaper Der Spiegel, writes that Trump’s airstrikes have likely escalated the conflict:
"In order to remain credible and reliable, the U.S. will have to answer any chemical attack in Syria with military action from now on. And these would have to hit the Assad regime harder every time. This means that if the Syrian dictator wants to do so and Russia allows it, the U.S. would gradually be drawn deeper into the Syrian war — a conflict Trump really wanted to keep out of."
Even Trump’s allies are voicing concern. “Many Trump voters will be worried about this military intervention. Where will it end?” UK Independence Party legislator Nigel Farage, wrote on Twitter. Another UKIP leader, Paul Nuttall, wrote: “The U.S. bombing of Syria last night was rash, trigger happy, nonsensical and will achieve nothing. I hoped for better.”
As Trump’s predecessors know only too well, it’s easy getting entangled in the Middle East. More than two decades in, it’s getting out that’s the problem.