After a week of signaling an imminent exit from the Syrian conflict, President Donald Trump mixed his messages once more with a furious set of tweets Sunday. Responding to reports of another potential chemical weapons strike carried out by the Syrian regime, Trump decried the "mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria" and pinned the blame on President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian patrons.
"Big price to pay," Trump warned. But it was unclear what that price is and who might pay it — other than Syria's brutalized civilian population, that is.
According to my colleagues, at least 40 people, including children, were killed Saturday evening in East Ghouta, a rebel-held enclave enduring a protracted government siege. First responders noted a "chlorine-like odor" after the attack, and patients showed symptoms such as respiratory ailments and foaming at the mouth.
Trump tweeted "Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price...
"....to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!"
The Syrian government rejected the allegations and, as usual, blamed Islamist rebels. Russian authorities also rebuffed international criticism of the Assad regime and warned against military intervention into Syria on "fabricated pretexts." A Foreign Ministry statement suggested the reports were rebel inventions "designed to shield the terrorists and the implacable radical opposition, who reject a political settlement."
That's not a view shared in Washington or European capitals. "It's a quite serious problem. We've seen the photos of that attack," Thomas Bossert, Trump's homeland security adviser, said to ABC News. "This is one of those issues on which every nation, all peoples, have all agreed and have agreed since World War II this is an unacceptable practice."
Monday happens to mark the first day on the job for Trump's new national security adviser, John Bolton, an outspoken proponent of unilateral American action around the world. Bolton was scheduled to chair a meeting on Syria, and Bossert suggested that all options "were on the table."
In the late hours of Sunday, reports on Syrian state television claimed that an airbase near the city of Homs was targeted by a series of missiles, but it was unclear who was behind the bombardment and the Pentagon denied that it was involved in any airstrikes.
Such an attack would be a repeat of what Trump did last year after an alleged Syrian regime chemical-weapons strike in Idlib province. He ordered U.S. Navy ships to pound a Syrian government airfield with 59 Tomahawk missiles, then memorably shared the news over dessert with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was visiting Trump at his Florida resort.
But if that punishment was meant to send a message to Assad, its effect has long since worn off — and Washington hawks are clamoring for more. They urged Trump over the weekend to reconsider his desire to withdraw American ground forces from Syria, a move they argue surrenders American leverage as the Assad regime looks to consolidate its position. The latest regime attack, Frederic Hof of the Atlantic Council said in an emailed statement, was a "challenge" to Trump's "credibility."
On Sunday, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., a frequent cheerleader of military interventions abroad, said that the Syrian regime and its allies "see us and our resolve breaking, they see our determination to stay in Syria waning ... but President Trump can reset the table here." Graham urged Trump to "follow through" on his bellicose tweets.
Trump, though, has shown little interest in owning the end game in Syria. He balks at the cost of the American war effort in the Middle East and Central Asia and cares chiefly about fighting the Islamic State. He also shares his predecessor's wariness of getting too entangled in a push toward regime change.
Soon after Trump's Sunday-morning Twitter salvo, many commentators pointed to his criticism from four years ago, when the Obama administration contemplated how to punish Assad for a chemical-weapons attack. The use of the illicit weapons crossed Obama's declared "red line," but Trump was doggedly opposed to any U.S. airstrikes on the regime. He also expressed concern for civilians they could put at risk.
Trump tweeted "President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your 'powder' for another (and more important) day!"
Trump tweeted "If Obama attacks Syria and innocent civilians are hurt and killed, he and the U.S. will look very bad!"
Of course, Trump is entitled to change his opinion over time. But on Sunday, he again tried to focus the blame on his predecessor, whom he now accused of not being tough enough on the Assad regime — in other words, for following Trump's own advice at the time.
Trump tweeted "If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!"
"Only Trump can criticize Obama for giving Assad a green light to commit atrocities in Syria while giving Assad a green light to commit atrocities in Syria," tweeted Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin. "The height of hypocrisy."
There's another important dimension to Trump's hypocrisy. Trump may fret over the horrors unleashed by Assad, but he has been unable to muster much compassion for thousands of Syrian refugees his administration moved to block from entering the United States. While he feared for innocent civilians getting "hurt and killed" four years ago, he has presided over an escalating air war around the world. The resulting civilian death toll is unconfirmed, but it likely runs in the hundreds, if not thousands.
Trump is not so bothered by this sort of suffering anymore. My colleague Greg Jaffe reported over the weekend on a CIA briefing Trump attended on his first full day in office, during which the new president watched footage of a drone strike on a suspected Islamist militant target. U.S. authorities had chosen to wait for the fighter to walk away from a building that housed his family; Trump was confused that the CIA chose to spare the lives of the Islamist militant's family.
This apparent cruelty now seems coupled with indifference. Targeted airstrikes may briefly chasten the Assad regime, but they can't change the broader facts on the ground. Russia, Iran and Turkey have seized the initiative and are haggling over Syria's political future while Trump seeks to pummel the Islamist militants and then disengage as quickly as possible.
Experts on counterterrorism stress that building economic growth and political inclusion in these war-torn societies is the real solution toward preventing future destabilizing — and miserable — insurgencies. Trump's disinterest, they say, may have real costs.
"If we remain in Syria, that will at least indicate that we are interested in what is happening in the country," Emile Nakhleh, a former senior CIA officer, wrote for the Cipher Brief. "But our military involvement is not sufficient. We can continue to kill ISIS fighters and reduce their territory, but if we are not engaged diplomatically, then it is unlikely there will be any sort of breakthrough regardless of our military involvement."
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.