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Syria Strife May Cause a Trump Shift Lawmakers Like

‘We need to make Bashar al-Assad pay a price,’ Sen. Roger Wicker says

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., holds up the iconic photo of a young dead Syrian boy as he addresses the Syrian crisis during a news conference on Capitol Hill in December 2015. At left, Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., holds up the iconic photo of a young dead Syrian boy as he addresses the Syrian crisis during a news conference on Capitol Hill in December 2015. At left, Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Donald Trump may be forced to change his mind — again. But this time, an about-face on Syria would likely bring accolades from many lawmakers who have been frustrated by his ever-shifting stances.

Another example of Trump going off course only to return to it days later could emerge early this week with the situation in Syria. Reports of a chemical weapons attack by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military on the rebel-held area of Douma might prompt Trump to alter his stance of pulling U.S. forces from the war-torn country.

While there is no consensus among lawmakers about what they want Trump to do, Republicans and Democrats do want him and his team to — at the least — step up their overall engagement on Syria.

Many lawmakers say the president’s positioning, or a lack of one, on Syria — including his declarations last week that he would prefer to withdraw troops — led to Assad’s brazen act over the weekend.

Senior Trump administration officials wasted little time Monday sending hawkish signals. Around 9 a.m., Defense Secretary James Mattis was asked if U.S. military strikes were being considered. “I don’t rule out anything right now,” he replied.

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A few hours later, Trump told reporters a decision could come in the next 48 hours, saying “nothing is off the table” when asked about the possibility he could order a second round of U.S. military strikes on the conflict-torn country in a year.

“We’ll be making that decision very quickly,” he said. “We cannot allow atrocities like that. … It was atrocious. It was horrible. This is about humanity and it can’t be allowed to happen.”

Right response

Sen. Roger Wicker, a senior Armed Services member, said Monday he thinks Trump is “correct not to rule anything out.”

“We need to make Bashar al-Assad pay a price,” the Mississippi Republican told CNN. “There are a number of options on the table.”

New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen noted in a statement that she supported U.S. military action in Syria in 2013 and the administration’s strikes last year. But the Armed Services and Foreign Relations members said “military efforts alone are not sufficient to adequately deal with the Syrian civil war.” Like other Democrats, she is pressing the White House for a long-term plan.

The president’s tough talk came as his new national security adviser, John Bolton, started his first day on the job.

Bolton, who was ambassador to the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration, was a leading advocate for the 2003 Iraq war, and has often argued in favor of the use of American military force. Bolton used a Feb. 7 tweet to express his view that the international community “hasn’t done enough to deter [Assad’s] continuing behavior.”

But Bolton also said in 2013 that had he been a member of Congress then, he would have voted against the force-authorization measure that never materialized to clear President Barack Obama to strike inside Syria (which the 44th commander in chief never opted to do).

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GOP voices

Congressional hawks are pressing for U.S. strikes. Sen. Lindsey Graham called the situation “a defining moment in his presidency, because he has challenged Assad in the past not to use chemical weapons.”

“President Trump can reset the table here,” the South Carolina Republican told ABC News on Sunday. “To me, I would destroy Assad’s air force. I would create safe zones in Syria where people can come back to their country from the surrounding area and live a better life. Train up Syrians to take on Assad so we can negotiate … from a position of strength.” 

Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain of Arizona fired off a tweet Sunday calling on Trump to “make Assad pay a price for his brutality.”

Other Republicans have been more measured.

“It is so important that the president ramp up the pressure and the sanctions on the Russian government because, without the support of Russia, I do not believe that Assad would still be in office,” Maine Sen. Susan Collins told CNN on Sunday.

Reports surfaced over the weekend that Assad’s military had once again used chemical weapons on a rebel-controlled part of the country, this time in Douma. Images and video emerged after the strike of individuals — including women and children — apparently slain, many foaming from their mouths.

Rescue officials on the ground reported more than 40 dead following the attack, with dozens more crowding area hospitals, according to reports from the region.

Not so fast

Democratic members who are watching the situation closely are stopping shy of calling for new U.S. strikes inside the troubled Middle Eastern country. They want the president and his team to step up their efforts to defuse the deadly conflict.

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“The policy in Syria has failed,” said House Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot L. Engel, noting that since Trump’s April 2017 missile strikes, Russia and Iran have made gains inside Syria and the Islamic State remains a threat.

“The number of deadly attacks against Syrian civilians has mounted, including chemical attacks, and the White House has been silent on how the United States will address the threat that the regime poses,” the New York Democrat said in a statement. “In fact, the administration’s policies — and the president’s off-the-cuff, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants pronouncements — have made the situation worse.”

Other prominent Democrats, while not calling for Trump to act militarily, are instead calling for a coalition of countries to fashion a collective response and for the administration to spell out its long-term Syria strategy.

“The international community must respond to this atrocity with strength and unity, and a thorough investigation. [Russian President Vladimir Putin] must be held accountable for his cynical support of Assad, and for enabling these war crimes,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “Members of Congress expect a comprehensive intelligence briefing on this attack as soon as possible. The Trump administration must finally provide a smart, strong and consistent strategy in Syria.”

Faysal Itani, a Middle East analyst at the Atlantic Council, suggested any strikes Trump orders would, geopolitically, need to be stronger than the attack by 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles he ordered last spring.

“If nothing happens, Assad will obviously conclude that Trump is as vacuous as Obama when it comes to enforcing threats,” Itani said, according to a blog post on the think tank’s website. “But if the United States does hit regime targets in a very limited manner, that would not necessarily change the regime’s future behavior anyway.”

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