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Guest Editorial: With Syria, Trump has every reason to make a move



Saturday, April 14, 2018

The hellish scenes have played out before in Syria: women and children dead or suffering in agony, the targeted victims of chemical weapons attacks. Now it has happened again. The villain apparently responsible is Syrian President Bashar Assad, who should be made to pay a heavy price.

On Monday, the world awaited action by President Donald Trump, evidently the only major leader able and willing to punish Assad for despicable acts of terror against noncombatants in a grinding civil war. “Big price to pay,” Trump warned in a tweet Sunday, suggesting retaliatory strikes by the U.S. military may be coming.

Aid groups and news agencies reported that in the midst of airstrikes Saturday by the Assad regime against rebels outside Damascus, civilians were overcome by poison fumes. Several dozen people choked to death, while others suffering from breathing problems and burning eyes sought medical attention. Videos showed chaotic scenes of men, women and children slumped on floors.

The Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in suburban Douma couldn’t immediately be corroborated because the area is cut off, but these attacks using outlawed weapons of war are one of Assad’s signatures. No doubt he is to blame. A year ago, he used chemical weapons in an attack on a rebel-held area, killing dozens of civilians. That attack triggered a swift decision by Trump to launch a fusillade of Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase. The damage was intentionally limited and proportional, but it sent a message that the United States won’t look the other way when a madman gasses his own people.

The seven-year war in Syria, with estimates of death tolls in the 400,000 range, is as intractable as it is barbaric. In Assad’s conflict with rebels, he obliterated Aleppo, targeting hospitals and killing thousands of residents by dropping bombs from helicopters on neighborhoods. Chemical weapons are another trick in his book. In the year since Trump’s Tomahawk attack, Assad appears to have used poison gas, showing that a U.S. response has its limits. But that doesn’t mean inaction is acceptable.

The main U.S. role in Syria has been to lead the coalition attacking Islamic State militants, who moved into the vacuum of a near-lawless country but now have been driven from their territory. That part of the overall conflict has gone well enough that Trump has mused he’d like to bring home the 2,000 U.S. military personnel working alongside Syrian Kurdish allies. Trump, with his inclination to put “America first,” seems primed to avoid or end foreign engagements when possible. But we think a departure from Syria would be unwise: A continued but limited U.S. presence will support and protect the Kurds, keep Islamic State on the run – and keep the Russians and Iranians off balance as they continue their dirty work of supporting Assad.

So why should Trump respond at all to another of Assad’s dastardly deeds? Because if Assad again is caught using chemical weapons, he should feel American wrath. Even in a broken country amid unending horrors, acts of state-sanctioned evil such as the poisoning of civilians cannot stand.

Trump appears to understand that. Having responded militarily last year, and having criticized President Barack Obama for inaction, this president has every reason to make another move against Assad. If he approves an attack on a Syrian airfield, or goes further and destroys much of Syria’s air force, he will be making a sober decision amid the chaos.


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