It appears to have dawned on Donald Trump that a pact with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad against the Islamists in his country makes no sense.
“It’s very, very possible, and, I will tell you, it’s already happened, that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” the American president told reporters in Washington after it emerged that Assad’s troops had again deployed chemical weapons.
As recently as last week, Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, appeared to soften America’s position, saying Assad’s future “will be decided by the Syrian people”.
Trump’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, famously declared Assad “must go”.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Trump told The New York Times he saw the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a bigger threat than Assad.
He also repeatedly counseled against American military intervention in Syria. (Which didn’t stop him from blaming the absence of military intervention under Obama for the most recent chemical weapons attack.)
Trump’s recent statements have confused the military and his allies in Europe.
BuzzFeed reports that Pentagon officials are unsure how to implement his change of heart:
Does he only want the Assad regime to stop using chemical weapons? Does he want regime change? Is he seeking a negotiated settlement? Or were Trump’s comments simply rhetoric?
Jean-Marc Ayrault, the foreign minister of France, has complained that he received mixed messages from Tillerson and the American defense secretary, Jim Mattis. “They’re not saying the same thing.”
It is exasperating that American policy on a matter that is literally life and death should be made so haphazardly at the highest level.
But it’s an improvement from a few months ago, when Trump left open the possibility of an alliance with Assad and his protector, Russia, against the Islamic State.
It is tempting to think that the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend, but the conflict in Syria is more complicated.
It was Assad who helped create the Islamic State by killing everybody else who resisted his tyranny. From the beginning of the uprising in 2011, Assad maintained that the choice was between him and madness — and he made sure madness prevailed on the other side.
Russia has done nothing to help defeat the Islamists. Its intervention in Syria targeted less fanatical opponents of Assad’s dictatorship in the vicinity of his Alawite homeland on the Mediterranean coast. If anything, Russia wiped out what little was left of the “moderate” opposition in Syria.
Allied troops from Hezbollah and Iran have similarly conducted the majority of their operations in the west of the country.
The Islamic State is headquartered in the east, where it does battle with Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers.
Like many Republicans, Trump inflates the Islamic State threat and believes the West is engaged in a civilizational struggle with radical Islam. We only are if we decide to be.
But — unlike Assad — the Islamic State does menace Europe and North America when it inspires, and possibly coordinates, lone-wolf and loosely-organized terrorist attacks.
It’s a problem, but it’s a manageable problem. Which is why the military has recommended continuing the Obama strategy of airstrikes, training allies and stabilizing liberated areas.