Syria has been consumed by a murderous mix of ancient grievances, proxy wars and a ruthless dictator. The United States and its allies have been consumed by indecision, as a brutal civil war killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians and displaced millions.
But most of the world has been united on Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the red line former president Barack Obama said could not be crossed. Now that Assad has used them again, killing more than 40 people in rebel-held Douma, President Donald Trump must respond again — as he did last year with a Tomahawk missile strike on a Syrian government airfield after a sarin gas attack killed at least 85 people.
So far, the president has said the right things. He called the attack barbaric and said anyone involved will pay a price. He also criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s ally and enabler, by name, the first time Trump has done that as he goes easy on Putin while levying sanctions on Russian oligarchs and others for a variety of actions. If this is an evolution in Trump’s thinking, it’s overdue. Putin is the Russian state. Any pretense otherwise is foolish. Russia’s failure to abide by a 2013 agreement to ensure Assad’s chemical weapons were removed is really Putin’s failure.
Another lesson about words: Shortly before the Douma attack, Trump said he wants to pull all U.S. forces out of Syria, where they have been fighting the Islamic State. Shortly before 2017’s sarin attack, Trump said removing Assad was no longer a priority. To the extent he inadvertently emboldens Assad, Trump must be more careful. Syria is perplexing. Both Trump and new National Security Adviser John Bolton have argued at times for punishing Syria and for holding back. We understand. We share their reticence about a conflict without end. But what happened in Douma is a clear red line, and Assad crossed it.