Trump’s erratic Syria policy just got even more jumbled

Threats from the White House towards the Syrian government have surprised officials, while Trump is reportedly apathetic over the issue.

Smoke rises over Saif Al Dawla district, in Aleppo, Syria. CREDIT: AP Photo/ Manu Brabo, File
Smoke rises over Saif Al Dawla district, in Aleppo, Syria. CREDIT: AP Photo/ Manu Brabo, File

According to the White House, the United States will make the Syrian regime “pay a heavy price” over any future chemical weapon attacks — which officials say could be imminent.

A statement released Monday by the White House Press Office indicated that the administration believes the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which seemingly has not launched a chemical weapons attack on civilians since April, could be planning another attack.

“The United States has identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children,” the statement read. “The activities are similar to preparations the regime made before its April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack. As we have previously stated, the United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. If, however, Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”

Where the intelligence came from or what the “heavy price” could look like was not specified. Statements like this are typically made following coordination across multiple agencies and departments, but the announcement appeared to stump defense officials. Five separate figures (including one at CENTCOM) told BuzzFeed they had no idea where an attack would come from and that they were unprepared for the White House statement. Later, an unnamed White House official slammed “anonymous leaks” and asserted that “all relevant agencies” (namely the State Department, Department of Defense, CIA, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence) had been involved prior to the statement.

A lack of coordination on foreign policy within the Trump administration has been a defining theme over the course of the past few months, especially with regards to Syria. As both a private citizen and a presidential candidate, Trump repeatedly signaled his disinterest in the Syrian civil war, especially with regards to further U.S. military involvement. But that abruptly changed in April, when Syrian forces struck the town of Khan Shaykhun with sarin gas, killing at least 74 people and injuring more than 500 others — many of whom were children. Images of the tragedy seemed to strike a chord with Trump. “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered at this very barbaric attack,” he said at the time. “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”


The U.S. military then fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase, the first time the United States directly attacked the Syrian government and a dramatic reversal of U.S. policy in Syria.

At the time, Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, expressed concerns to ThinkProgress over the administration’s Syria policy. “It is concerning that Trump’s approach to Syria and maybe to foreign policy writ large is completely incoherent,” Hamid said, though he also noted, as an Assad critic, that Trump’s change in attitude towards the regime was welcome.

It’s a change that has soured relations with other countries, namely Russia. As Syria’s chief defender throughout its enduring and bloody six-year war, Russia has repeatedly clashed with the United States on the Assad regime’s tactics. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley swiftly followed Monday’s statement with a tweet targeting Russia as well as Iran, both allies of Assad:

In response to the announcement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov defended Assad’s government while dismissing U.S. claims that another attack was pending. “I am not aware of any information about a threat that chemical weapons can be used,” he told reporters on a conference call. “Certainly, we consider such threats to the legitimate leadership of the Syrian Arab Republic unacceptable.”


Peskov’s comments are only the latest Russian warning to the U.S. government over Syria. Last week, Moscow condemned the downing of a Syrian warplane by the U.S. military, the first such escalation since the beginning of Syria’s civil war in 2011. Russia said it would view U.S. jets seen west of the Euphrates River as targets, and it suspended use of a deconfliction hotline between U.S. and Russian officials that allowed for aircraft coordination in order to avoid collisions (though, notably, the Kremlin has claimed to suspend the hotline in the past.)

Despite tense ties, communication channels between the United States and Russia regarding Syria are open. According to the Daily Beast, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson contacted his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, about the White House’s announcement before it was made. But the publication also called Trump’s personal level of investment in the issue into question, quoting two White House officials who said the president was more interested in feuding with his critics at home than addressing foreign conflicts.

“The president cares more about CNN and the Russia story than [Syria] at the moment,” said one official.

Trump’s apathy aside, it seems that the U.S. presence in Syria is only increasing. Last week, the United States shot down an Iranian-made Syrian drone in the south of Syria, the second time in less than two weeks that such an incident has occurred. Such escalation has some worried about the increasing likelihood of a proxy war between Iran, Russia, and the United States. With that in mind, Monday’s White House statement seems to signal a trend — though what the end result will be is unclear.