During his daily press briefing, Sean Spicer gave an absolutely bizarre answer when asked by Kristin Welker what the Trump administration’s goal was in engaging Syria after the missile strike on an airbase in retaliation for a chemical weapon attack.
“The goal for the United States is twofold,” Spicer explained. “It’s, one, to make sure we destabilize Syria — destabilize the conflict there, reduce the threat of ISIS. But then, secondly, is create the political environment, not just within the Syrian people, but I think you can have — work with Russia in particular to make sure that they understand that Syria, backed up by Russia’s own accounting, should be held accountable for the agreements that its made with respect to its international agreements on chemical weapons alone.”
Welker pressed the press secretary about whether it was possible “to defeat ISIS with Assad still in power.”
Spicer mumbled the question back to himself before finally answering.“Um, yes,” he said. “Sure.”
The goal is to destabilize a country that has been in a civil war for seven years, where millions have fled and become refugees, where rival insurgent groups are fighting both the government and each other, and in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the fighting. Exactly how much more destabilized could it possibly get? And the question, even if you could get Russia to go along with trying to remove Assad from power — and you can’t, they have too much invested in him — is what would replace him? Who would fill the power vacuum? Us? Russia? ISIS?
These are serious questions. You can certainly make a strong humanitarian case for getting Assad out of power, just as you could with Saddam Hussein, another strongman butcher. But that can’t be the only consideration. Destabilizing situations like this can have massive consequences that could result in a great many terrible things happening, from a broader Middle East war to war with Russia. And there is nothing to indicate that Trump has put any thought into those implications, or would even be capable of doing so if he wanted to. Mattis and McMasters have, I’m sure, given a lot of thought to such matters, but Trump is the one making the decisions and if he doesn’t understand what they’re telling him, very bad things could happen.