Editorial Board

Trump Owns Syria Policy. But What Is It?

Every unanswered use of chemical weapons makes the world a more dangerous place.

Seeing is believing.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It counts as progress that the president of the United States now acknowledges that he, not his predecessor, is responsible for the policy of the United States in Syria. Now the question is how Donald Trump will fulfill his responsibility after this week's horrific chemical weapons attack.

For starters, Trump needs to be careful not to repeat one of his predecessor's worst mistakes. In 2012, President Barack Obama warned Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad not to cross the "red line" of using chemical weapons -- then failed to take action when he did. Trump has amped up Obama's rhetoric, saying that this week's attacks "crossed a lot of lines for me." It was, he said, "beyond a red line."

Worldwide Reaction to U.S. Military Strikes on Syria

Worse, he made these remarks shortly after all but throwing an ultimatum at North Korea to stop its missile and nuclear programs, and putting Iran "on notice" for its missile tests. North Korea and Iran will take their cues from his response in Syria. So will China and Russia.

Here's the problem: Any precipitous U.S. military action risks a clash with Russian forces in Syria, and a threat to U.S. troops fighting there against Islamic State. It also would be on shaky legal ground, both internationally and in terms of authorization from Congress. Not surprisingly for a man who spent the last three years tweeting his opposition to any involvement in Syria, Trump has laid none of the groundwork for support of a greater U.S. role.

Chemical Weapons

So what can he do? Trump has said that he will never telegraph his military plans to America's enemies. That shouldn't stop him from making public as much U.S. evidence as possible about Syria's responsibility for the attack. Even open-source investigations have already laid bare the falsehoods offered up by Syria and Russia.

Meanwhile, France, the U.K., and the U.S. have put forward a draft resolution at the United Nations Security Council condemning the attack. That’s a worthy if doomed mission: Russia and China vetoed the last such attempt to hold Assad accountable. These two nations need every public reminder possible of their unconscionable support for a war criminal who thinks nothing of torturing and killing his people -- a message that Trump should reinforce with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

History will not be kind to Obama's feckless Syrian policy. True, there are no easy options for the U.S. moving ahead. But that does not relieve the world's only superpower of its responsibility to act -- especially after two presidents have spoken. Assad must know that his brutality will bring consequences. Every unanswered use of chemical weapons makes the world a more barbaric and dangerous place, not least for Americans.

    --Editors: James Gibney, Michael Newman

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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