The scale and horror of Tuesday’s gas attack on civilians in Idlib highlighted the vacuum in the Trump administration’s foreign policymaking: the incident was met first by silence, then by criticism of Barack Obama.
Donald Trump described the attack, which killed scores of victims, including many children, as a direct “consequence” of his predecessor’s Syria policy.
“These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the last administration’s weakness and irresolution,” he said in a statement. “President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.”
The reflex illustrated Trump’s enduring sense of being in his predecessor’s shadow, reinforcing the impression given by his obsessive tweeting of unsubstantiated claims that Obama wiretapped him.
As with healthcare, Trump’s policy on Syria has been defined by the desire to unpick Obama’s legacy – without a clear picture of what would replace it.
In the absence of a clear vision, the initial response to on Tuesday was silence.
The Idlib attack was swiftly condemned by western capitals and congressional leaders, but the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson – who was visiting neighbouring Jordan at the time – ignored a press question about it, retaining his customary silence in the face of daily world events.
He recently described himself as “not a media press access person”.
On Tuesday morning, Trump addressed a builders’ conference, but made no mention of the attack.
It was only later in the day that the White House spokesman read out a statement from the president, in which Trump used the occasion to score a domestic political point against the Obama administration.
He pointed out that Obama had set down a “red line” in 2012 on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but argued that Obama then “did nothing” when the Assad regime carried out a mass gas attack against the town of Ghouta in August 2013.
Obama did not carry out air strikes but organised with Russia to move Syria’s declared arsenal of chemical weapons out of the country to be destroyed.
There was nothing in Trump’s statement to indicate how the US might respond differently from the Obama administration.
After the Ghouta attack in 2013, Trump had argued vociferously against US military action in Syria. On 7 September of that year, he tweeted: “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!”
AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA - IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2013
There was also no mention in Trump statement on Tuesday of what impact the attack would have on Washington’s approach to Assad’s principal backers, Russia and Iran.
Later in the day, after much public speculation about his silence, Tillerson issued his own statement, which did address the responsibility of Moscow and Tehran.
“While we continue to monitor the terrible situation, it is clear that this is how Bashar al-Assad operates: with brutal, unabashed barbarism,” the former oil executive said.
He added: “We call upon Russia and Iran, yet again, to exercise their influence over the Syrian regime and to guarantee that this sort of horrific attack never happens again.”
The tone of the statement was reminiscent of the previous administration, both in terms of its condemnation of the role of Russia and Iran as enablers – and in its absence of references to future US action.
In New York, the US envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, said she would use the US presidency of the security council to convene a special session on Syria on Wednesday morning.
However, US allies and Syrian opposition figures questioned the coherence of the administration’s position, noting that the attack followed statements from both Tillerson and Haley that appeared to formalise a change in US policy, away from demanding an end to the Assad regime.
Tillerson declared during a visit to Turkey this week that the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people”. On Thursday, Haley told reporters: “You pick and choose your battles ... And when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities, and our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.”
On Tuesday, the French foreign minister vented his frustration at the confusion at the heart of Trump’s Syria policy, arguing that the Idlib attack was carried out by the Damascus government to explore the boundaries and responses of the new US adminstration.
“It’s a test. That’s why France repeats the messages, notably to the Americans, to clarify their position,” Jean-Marc Ayrault told RTL radio.
“I told them that we need clarity. What’s your position? The question is to know, yes or no, whether the Americans support a political transition in Syria, which means organising this transition, elections, and that at the end of the process, the question of Assad’s departure is asked,” Ayrault said.
Criticism also came from Republican leaders. Senator John McCain said the idea that the Syrian people would be able to vote on Assad’s future while being bombed was “an absurd fiction”.
“The recent statements by US officials suggesting otherwise only serve to legitimise the actions of this war criminal in Damascus,” McCain said.
The starting assumption of the Trump administration’s Syrian policy was that it would be possible to concentrate almost exclusively on fighting Islamic State extremists, possibly in concert with Russia, and only afterwards talk in earnest about the country’s political future. It was never clear how that policy was consistent with pushing back Iranian influence in the region, as Tehran would benefit from western focus on Isis, and an easing of pressure on its ally the Assad regime.
The Idlib massacre has dramatically underlined another hole in the administration’s approach: a failure to appreciate the degree to which Assad’s brutality was a driver of extremism.
Basma Kodmani, a member of the Syrian opposition, suggested the attack was in fact a direct consequence of the US decision to relax pressure on Assad.
“The first reaction from Syrians is that this is a direct consequence of American statements about Assad not being a priority and giving him time and allowing him to stay in power,” Kodmani told Reuters in Washington.