Monday, February 26, 2018 at 8:17 AM

Trump Finally Criticizes Russia re Syria but Unwittingly Criticizes Himself

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

On Friday, when Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull visited the White House, President Trump was obliged to hold a joint press conference. This gave reporters an increasingly rare opportunity to question him in a formal setting.

I feared they would waste the two questions Trump allowed to ask redundant ones about the Russia investigation. Therefore, I was heartened when one of them asked why he was just standing by while President Putin and President Assad commit all manner of crimes against humanity in Syria.

Trump, after all, is the self-proclaimed strongman who launched 59 cruise missiles at an airbase in Syria last April. The base was relatively deserted. But he insisted his “wag-the-dog” strikes would make Assad think twice about ever crossing his red line on the use of chemical weapons again. His clear insinuation was that, unlike the “weak” Obama, he would make Assad pay a deadly price every time.

Yet here, in effect, is all Trump had to say:

I will say what Russia and what Iran and what Syria have done recently is a humanitarian disgrace.

(Reuters, February 23, 2018)

This, despite the fact that Assad has crossed his red line many times since last April – impunity increasing Assad’s indifference with each new attack.

But nothing betrayed his weakness quite like Trump not even having the balls to call Putin out by name for meddling in Syria. Even worse, he went out of his way to deflect responsibility.

This, of course, is an incriminating tell. No doubt you’ll see that it mirrors the way he always deflects responsibility for Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election:

It could be Russia, but it could also be China. … It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, O.K.?

(New York Times, September 27, 2016)

That said, this tweet shows why Trump’s lame criticism of Russia actually criticizes himself:

We negotiated a ceasefire in parts of Syria which will save lives. Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 9, 2017

Many commentators are hailing him for finally calling unrelenting wars crimes in Syria a humanitarian disgrace. Unfortunately, this just reflects how much Trump has lowered the bar for and debased the norms of presidential leadership. But I hope reporters continue pressing him to explain why he has done nothing to prevent these crimes.

The conflict in Syria has been raging ever since Arab Spring protests erupted in 2011. It became very complicated very quickly – complete with regional powers fighting sectarian battles by proxy, Western powers whack-a-moling ISIS terrorists, and Russia seeking superpower relevance.

They all have the blood of innocent Syrians on their hands. Not to mention the migration/refugee crisis this conflict spawned. But Russia became most blameworthy when Putin began providing direct political and military cover for Assad.

After all, that cover has included everything from vetoing UN resolutions criticizing Syria to enabling Syrian forces to launch chemical attacks and drop barrel bombs on opposition forces and innocent civilians alike.

I decried Russia’s complicity in several commentaries, most notably in “Why Putin, Not Obama, Is the Master of Assad’s Fate,” December 14, 2012, and “Bombing ISIS Smacks of Masturbatory Violence,” November 18, 2015. And I ridiculed its setbacks in others, most notably in “Putin’s Bush-Lite Declaration of ‘Mission Accomplished’ in Syria,” March 19, 2016, and “Alas, Syrian Ceasefire No. 44 Will Fare No Better,” September 10, 2016.

More to the point, though, anyone who knows anything about this Syrian conflict knows that Putin’s idea of working constructively is saying anything and bombing anyone to keep Assad in power. Evidently, Trump is too stupid to see this or too compromised/cowardly to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, Nikki Haley is his John the Baptist-like ambassador to the United Nations. She never misses an opportunity to denounce Putin and Assad (by name), citing the open and notorious way they are turning Syria into what UN Secretary-General António Guterres describes as “Hell on Earth.”

Such was the case on Saturday when she blasted Russia after it finally agreed to a UN resolution providing for (another) ceasefire. This one was supposed to allow deliveries of humanitarian relief to millions of besieged Syrians, over 600 of whom Syrian and Russian bombs killed just this past week.

Here in part is what Haley said:

Every minute the council waited on Russia, the human suffering grew. … In the three days it took us to adopt this resolution, how many mothers lost their kids to the bombing and the shelling?

(CNN, February 24, 2018)

Except that, whenever Haley denounces Russia, she highlights the daring way Putin is continually defying, if not mocking, Trump (and his wishful thinking about working constructively). Which is why nobody should have been surprised that, after voting for that ceasefire resolution on Saturday, Putin gave Assad his blessing for this on Sunday:

A child died and at least 13 other people suffered breathing difficulties after a suspected chemical attack on a besieged Syrian rebel enclave [in the eastern Ghouta region] Sunday, a medic and a monitor said.

(Agence France-Presse, February 26, 2018)

My heart goes out to these victims. But there’s no gainsaying the fact that this latest attack is mostly about punching a bully (namely Trump) in the nose. After all, given what he said on Friday, Putin and Assad were clearly daring him to put up or shut up on Sunday. Instead, Trump retreated, tweeting talking points about how his immigration policies will make America safe (and white) again.

And so it goes – with Putin doing as Putin does; Trump tweeting as Trump tweets.

But hope springs eternal that commentaries like this will goad the thin-skinned Trump into launching truly deadly strikes against Assad, if only to save his own face.

Related commentaries:
wag the dog Syria
U.S. and Russia on Syria
Putin, not Obama, master
Putin’s Bush-lite mission in Syria
Bombing ISIS
Ceasefire
Demystifying ISIS

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