Syrian Gas Attack Extracts Big Price


Once again, the world is recoiling in disgust and horror at a dastardly chemical weapons attack unleashed on a suburb of Damascus in which scores of civilians, many of them children, died and many others were horribly sickened.

After a similar attack a year ago, President Donald Trump earned praise from his supporters and detractors alike when he ordered a measured strike of Tomahawk missiles against facilities from which the gas attacks were launched.  As this edition of the Jewish Light went to press, the White House was said to be weighing its actions.

In his first tweeted response, Trump, to his credit, called out by name not only Syrian dictator Bashar Assad but his principal backer, Russian President Vladimir Putin. The president warned of an unspecified “Big Price” that would be paid as a result of this latest atrocity. 

If the response turns out to be one of appropriate military force that would have a lasting impact, he would deserve support. If, on the other hand, he fails to act convincingly and meaningfully, it could be Trump himself who ends up paying that big price.

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Trump has already been rightfully criticized for giving Syria an opening and emboldening Assad to launch the attack after he precipitously announced last week that the 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria would be withdrawn “very soon.”  Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, blamed Trump for making the statement, repeating two previous diplomatic blunders which led to major conflicts.  

As James Hohmann wrote in the Washington Post, a 1950 speech by Secretary of State Dean Acheson implied that Korea was outside of the “defense perimeter” of the United States, leading some to infer that America was abandoning South Korea. “That helped provoke a war with fallout we’re still managing today,” Hohmann wrote.

In a parallel blunder, on July 25, 1990, April Glaspie, then U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told Saddam Hussein, that nation’s dictator, in a face-to-face meeting: “We have no opinion of your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait.”  She added that Secretary of State James Baker “has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.”  

The transcript of the meeting indicates that Saddam smiled when Glaspie finished her statement. Eight days later, Iraq invaded and claimed to annex Kuwait, calling it the “19th province of Iraq.”

Of course, there were other factors that led to the wars in Korea and the Persian Gulf. But the ill-timed and ill-considered statements issued by Acheson and Glaspie gave the dictators in those regions what they thought was a green light to stage their invasions with impunity.

As Trump weighed his response to the latest chemical attack, he had already painted himself into a rhetorical corner with his “big price” warning. While the White House was figuring out what to do, Israel, always alert to increased dangers from its northern neighbor, reportedly launched several attacks on various military sites in Syria. 

The Israeli government followed its usual practice of not confirming the attacks, but several sources, including Russia and the Associated Press, confirmed that the attacks took place. The action was reminiscent of what occurred in 2007, when Israel secretly took out a Syrian factory, staffed by North Koreans, that was working to develop nuclear weapons for the Assad regime.  The factory was utterly flattened by Israel, which again did not confirm or deny the very effective strike.

Trump, who has a tendency to “tweet and retreat” in times of crisis, needs to move forcefully, decisively and without ambiguity. He should borrow a page from Israel’s playbook and take meaningful steps against Syria, so that U.S. actions speak for themselves. The world is watching.