A crater is seen at the site of an airstrike, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib...
AMMAR ABDULLAH

Trump has options in Syria, if he wants them

Donald Trump’s new approach to Syria bears little resemblance to his position from a few days ago, last week, last year, or even four years ago. By way of an explanation, the White House points to Bashar al-Assad’s brutal chemical attack on Tuesday, which NBC News reports killed at least 100 people – including 25 children – and injured 400 others.

In other words, the president’s military response last night has a humanitarian motivation: Syria’s regime is responsible for a deadly atrocity, the argument goes, and the United States felt it was necessary to respond. The New York Times published a headline (which has since been changed) that told readers, “On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came First.”

This is an incredibly generous interpretation of yesterday’s developments, based on nothing but Trump’s rhetoric. We’re to believe the president, moved by compassion and sympathy for Assad’s victims, struck at Syria as an expression of American disgust.

But what’s often overlooked is the range of options available to the administration – some through the military, some not – which the president can take full advantage of in pursuit for a moral policy. Vox’s Dylan Matthews had a good piece along these lines last night, noting Trump’s efforts to block Syrian refugees – the people fleeing the bloodshed that apparently moved the president to action – from seeking safe harbor in the United States.
Expanding refugee resettlement would certainly work, would carry little in the way of short-term financial costs, and that would likely provide a powerful boost to the US economy and drastically increase the living standards of Syrians who were able to relocate. Instead, Trump has sought to slash the number of Syrians allowed to come to the US – while dropping bombs on Syria itself.
MSNBC’s Chris Hayes added last night, “If we care about suffering of people, there are lots of things we can do other than war.” Chief among them are letting in refugees.

The president was asked yesterday about his vision, and he told reporters, in reference to Assad, “[H]e’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so something should happen.”

It’s understandable under the circumstances to think “something should happen” given the deadly consequences of Assad’s attack this week. It also creates a familiar framework:

1. We should do something.

2. Firing Tomahawk cruise missiles is something.

3. We should therefore fire Tomahawk cruise missiles.

If we’re going to take Trump’s words at face value, and assume that he was so affected by images out of Idlib this week that he changed his mind about U.S. policy towards Syria, fine. But it’s not unreasonable to wonder about the scope of Trump’s change of heart, and ask whether his new assessments may include a fresh perspective on refugees, too.

Donald Trump and Syria

Trump has options in Syria, if he wants them