Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: Trump gets a tragic lesson in Syria

So this is how it's going to go:

Last week, the Trump administration announced a major change in policy toward Syria. Under its theme of "America First," the United States was no longer interested in pushing the regime of Bashar al-Assad out of power in Syria. That was their fight, not ours, and we would instead concentrate our efforts on battling ISIS.

As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it, the fate of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad “will be decided by the Syrian people,” not by the United States.

That set the stage for tragedy.

No longer afraid of American interference, Assad quickly ramped up his attacks on his own people. Four days after the change in U.S. policy, he dropped nerve gas in rebel-held towns that killed an estimated 90 civilians, including some two dozen children. When victims were rushed to a nearby hospital, Syrian jets bombed the hospital as well.

To anybody who has paid attention over the last six years, that reaction by Assad came as no surprise. Nor did Assad's brutality. That is who he is, and who he has always been. When peaceful protests began in Syrian cities in March of 2011, Assad's regime responded by killing hundreds of demonstrators in cold blood, touching off the spiral of violence that has left his country in ruins. He and his inner circle have since committed countless war crimes in their desperate effort to remain in power.

But somehow, that level of brutality did not seem to have registered with President Trump, not until now. "It crossed a lot of lines for me," he said a few minutes ago, referring to the gas attack. "When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies with a chemical gas that is so lethal -- people were shocked to hear what gas it was -- that crosses many many lines."

"That attack yesterday had a big impact on me. Big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I've been watching it, and seeing it, and it doesn't get any worse than that," he said. "And my attitude toward Syria, and Assad, has changed very much."

One would assume, based on that statement, that the Trump administration just did a one-eighty on Syria, at least regarding Assad. It has discovered to its shock and dismay that its simplistic understanding of the world can have serious on-the-ground consequences, in this case consequences that include dead children, and it doesn't much like that discovery. Welcome to the real world.

Another aspect of the Trump policy toward Syria is still unlikely to change, however. One of the president's top priorities, first as a candidate and now in office, has been to try to block mothers, fathers and children fleeing that madness in Syria from seeking refuge here in the United States. He has treated them not as families seeking sanctuary but as potential terrorists out to attack and undermine us from within, and I suspect that his proudly proclaimed "flexibility" does not extend to altering that mindset.

Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.