More than four years ago, President Barack Obama vowed action if Syria crossed a “red line” and used chemical weapons on its own people.
But when hundreds of Syrians died in a chemical weapons attack in the Ghouta region outside Damascus in 2013, Obama failed to act.
“The Trump administration appears to have decided that prompt reaction was the best way to send a clear signal,” said Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst and terrorism expert at the nonprofit RAND Corp. research center who has been to Syria twice in the last two months. “The contrast with the Obama administration’s drawn-out internal debates could not be sharper.”
U.S. officials who spoke about the differences between the presidents in the wake of Thursday night’s raid on the Shayrat military base in Homs province said Trump had weighed the history when he decided to send 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the air base – the U.S.’s first direct military action against Assad during the country’s six-year civil war.
Trump himself offered a similar assessment.
“The Obama administration had a great opportunity to solve this crisis a long time ago when he said the red line in the sand,” he said Wednesday, before the attack. “And when he didn’t cross that line after making the threat, I think that set us back a long ways, not only in Syria, but in many other parts of the world, because it was a blank threat.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research center, who specializes in the use of military force, said Trump might have been motivated to show he was different from Obama. “Trump did distinguish himself from Obama,” he said.
But the long-term impact of Obama’s and Trump’s strategies may not be that different, especially if Trump limits his action to a one-time event, as some administration officials have signaled to lawmakers and foreign leaders.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to discourage speculation that Thursday’s action represented a longtime change in U.S. strategy toward Syria.
“I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today,” he told reporters in Palm Beach, Florida, where Trump was meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
O’Hanlon said Trump’s action largely fit with the post-Cold War mainstream of American presidents starting with Bill Clinton, who used cruise missiles against al Qaida, and ending with Obama, who often relied on drone strikes.
Trump immediately won praise from many lawmakers, even moderate Republicans and Democrats, those who had been critical of him for other reasons.
“Unlike the previous administration, President Trump will not tolerate Assad’s egregious actions,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.
Last night’s cruise missile strikes against the Syrian airfield that launched the chemical weapons attack was a limited but necessary response to those heinous acts, and I hope the intended message was received. The United States cannot continue to stand by and watch Assad commit these atrocities
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
But Trump’s decision to act came just days after the administration had abandoned Obama’s goal of pushing Assad from power. Some foreign policy experts surmised that that change had emboldened Assad to attack.
A spokesman for Obama, who is reportedly spending a month in French Polynesia, declined to comment Friday.
Obama initially drew the “red line” in a seemingly off-the-cuff remark at an August 2012 news conference. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” he said at the time. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
Republican lawmakers called on Obama to act for months as Syria’s civil war dragged on and they said it had become apparent that Assad had used chemical weapons. After the alleged chemical attack in Ghouta in August 2013, Obama seemed to have decided to launch airstrikes against Assad as punishment. But then support waned in Congress and Obama joined with Russia to persuade Assad to abandon his chemical weapons program.
“Obama’s decision not to attack sent a signal of weakness and indecision,” said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.
Cordesman said circumstances in Syria had changed as more people were killed, war dragged on and Syria insisted that it had disposed of chemical weapons. He said that if Trump had not acted it it would have left Assad to continue his attacks and caused others to lose trust in the United States.
Near the end of his term, Obama said Syria still haunted him but he didn’t know what else he could have done to stop hundreds of thousands from being killed and millions from being displaced.
“I do ask myself, ‘Was there something that we hadn’t thought of?’ ” Obama said to presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin for Vanity Fair in September. “Was there some move that is beyond what was being presented to me that maybe a Churchill could have seen, or an Eisenhower might have figured out?’ ”
Lesley Clark in Washington contributed to this article.