The enigma of Assad: How a painfully shy eye doctor turned into a murderous tyrant

(I PULLED THIS ARTICLE FROM ‘MAX DE HALDEVANG’S’ QUARTZ WEBSITE AND REUTERS)

A DOCTOR’S DOWNFALL

The enigma of Assad: How a painfully shy eye doctor turned into a murderous tyrant

April 21, 2017

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad never seemed cut out to be a dictator. As a young man, Assad—the second son of strongman president Hafez al-Assad—was so painfully shy that in conversation, “he wouldn’t look in your eye…he covered his mouth with his hands when he talked, and spoke in a low voice,” says Ayman Abdel Nour, a university friend. Indeed, Assad generally avoided gatherings of more than handful of people, and would hunch over to make his tall frame less conspicuous. “He was a totally regular citizen; you wouldn’t guess he was the son of the president unless you knew him personally,” Abdel Nour remembers.

While Bashar’s flashy older brother Bassel quickly rose through the ranks of the military, Bashar chose to study ophthalmology and took a softer posting as an army doctor. “The doctors aren’t considered real army,” Abdel Nour says. “They’re not real fighters—there’s no army in the world where the major general is a doctor.”

But Assad’s relatively quiet life changed dramatically when Bassel died in a car accident in 1993. Studying in London at the time of the crash, Assad was called back to Syria where his father dubbed him the new “hope” of the Syrian people. Seven years later, after his father’s death, he took over as president. In 2013, the urbane, Phil Collins-loving would-be eye doctor reportedly slaughtered around 1,400 people in what the UN called the “most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein” in 1988. On April 4th, Assad used chemical weapons (paywall) on his own people again.

 “There’s an irreconcilable Dr Jekyll-Mr Hyde tension in the person of Assad.” “There’s an irreconcilable Dr Jekyll-Mr Hyde tension in the person of Assad,” says Nadim Houry, who directs Human Rights Watch’s terrorism program and spent 11 years monitoring Assad’s regime. “There’s this clean-cut guy who gets interviewed by outlets, always has an Apple laptop on his desk and speaks very calmly. He’s very far from the image of an Arab dictator like Saddam or Gadaffi with their rifles in the air. Yet when you look at the behavior of the regime, it behaves very much like a typical, brutal Arab dictatorship—massive torture, massive killing of civilians, indiscriminate and deliberate bombing.”

The world has reacted with horror to Assad’s brutality, but while his cruelty is nothing new in the region, his transformation is more perplexing. What could possibly have so changed this soft-spoken man, who promised to reform his late father’s heavy-handed dictatorship, into a tyrant so desperate to hold on to power that he would eventually gas his own people to do so?

Ask 10 different Syrian experts and you’ll get 10 different answers. No one really knows if Assad ever genuinely cared about the reformist ideas he initially championed, but there was at least some early inclination towards economic liberalism. What we do know is that these desires were repeatedly trampled by two factors: the entrenched authoritarianism of the forces around him, and the instincts that shaped him.

“He’s a child of the Cold War on the side of the USSR; of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the side of the Arab states; and, most of all, he’s the child of his father,” says David Lesch, a history professor at Trinity University in Texas, and the author of two books on Assad’s Syria. “These are the influences that shaped his worldview, rather than being a computer nerd and liking Western music.”

The “Damascus Spring” and high early expectations

After 29 years of Hafez al-Assad, a ruthless air force commander who came to power in a coup, Bashar’s sleek suits and British investment-banker wife seemed like a breath of fresh air. His inaugural speech in July 2000 called for “democracy,” “transparency,” and “constructive criticism”—it even contained implicit criticisms of his father. “The speech created a great deal of hope,” says Lesch.

French President Jacques Chirac (R) meets Bachar Assad, son of Syrian President Hafez Assad, prior to their meeting and luncheon at the Elysee Palace to discuss the stalled Arab-Israeli peace talks November 7. MAL//ME - RTRS4ZO
From a quiet life as an ophthalmology student, Assad was plunged into meetings with the likes of French president Jacques Chirac in 1999. (Reuters)

The inauguration was followed by a period of relative openness, known as the “Damascus Spring.” Some opposition parties were allowed, the press got a little bit freer, and hundreds of political prisoners were released. Liberal intellectuals founded discussion salons across the Syrian capital and put together political pamphlets and petitions for reform.

 His inauguration was followed by a period of relative openness. It didnt last long. But this openness didn’t last long. “Of course, it didn’t take more than a few weeks before people were demanding regime change because the regime was so corrupt,” says Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Middle East Studies Center and author of the Syria Comment blog. “It stunk. The whole thing stunk—so, any kind of critique had to lead to regime change.” Within months, Assad was warning (pdf, p. 5) that civil society groups criticizing the government were, consciously or unconsciously, helping “the country’s enemies” and, ominously, would be “dealt with.” A few months later, 10 opposition leaders were imprisoned.

Even now, there’s little agreement among analysts on whether Assad actually wanted the “Damascus Spring” to last. Dovish voices like Lesch believe his mildly progressive ambitions were thwarted by hardliners from his father’s government. Many others believe the early rhetoric was merely a front to attract international investment to Syria’s backward economy. “It was a PR campaign to normalize the government,” says Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Radwan Ziadeh, a human-rights activist and fellow at the Arab Institute in Washington, DC, agrees. “The Damascus spring was only a cosmetic step to try to get legitimacy,” he says. “Assad actually got this because lot of international leaders praised him early on.”

 “The Damascus spring was only a cosmetic step to try to get legitimacy.” Ziadeh has good reason to be skeptical of Assad’s motives—he was one of the opposition intellectuals Assad targeted in 2001. Never persuaded by Assad’s promises of reform, Ziadeh criticized him in articles published under a pseudonym in Lebanese newspapers. When the crackdown started, the government took his passport away, censored his writing, and had him followed by the security services for almost a year, he says. He eventually fled to the US in 2007 under the pretext of buying medicine for his father, who had cancer, and has never returned to Syria.

The family ties that bind

Even if political reforms were a veneer, Assad did seem committed to economic liberalization. His father had shored up power through what Landis calls an “authoritarian bargain.” In this Soviet-style model, the regime provides the means for basic sustenance for the rural working class, who in exchange give their political allegiance to it. However, during the 29 years of Hafez’s reign, the country’s population had more than doubled, and as the world globalized, the country badly needed to open its economy up to allow non-oil sectors to develop.

Despite resistance from old hands in the security services who worried that any openness would lead to opposition, Bashar did bring about some economic reforms. Banks were privatized, the internet was introduced, and foreign investment was made easier. However, his motivation for such changes was hardly altruistic, argues Abdel Nour, Assad’s university friend, who worked as a voluntary government adviser in the early 2000s. In reality, he says, changing the economy to help ordinary Syrians was far from the top of Assad’s priorities; what was most important was enriching his friends and, especially, his family.

A Lebanese pastes a picture of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad (L) near another one of his son and likely successor, Bashar, in Beirut on June 11. Assad died on Saturday, aged 69, after ruling Syria for 30 years. Syria is the main power broker in Lebanon. ASSADLEBA6.jpg - RTR56A2
A picture of new Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is pasted alongside one of his dead father in 2000. (Reuters)

Abdel Nour says this ulterior motive finally dawned on him in 2003, when Syria’s parliament passed a reform bill he had worked on. Assad’s uncle persuaded him not to sign the bill until it had been changed to include six or seven clauses that would directly benefit his cousin’s businesses.

 “I realized then that I’m not working for a country, I’m working for a family business”—Ayman Abdel Nour, former friend of Assad That was the last time Abdel Nour spoke to his old university friend. “I realized then that I’m not working for a country, I’m working for a family business,” he says. “I discovered that all this about reforms was wrong; it was bullshit and propaganda. So I decided to inform the Syrian people about what has happening so they would push for reforms themselves.” Abdel Nour stopped advising Assad, and set up the opposition news website All4Syria, which he now runs from Los Angeles.

In keeping with another common dictatorial trope, Assad’s cronyism eventually backfired, Landis says, as it undermined the “authoritarian bargain” that kept his father in power. “The class gap suddenly just widened,” he says. “That created tremendous resentment because the elite would get wealthy beyond belief.” This division would set the stage for Syria’s 2011 revolution—an event that would also solidify Assad’s transformation into a cold-blooded mass murderer.

Assad would also learn that even limited change can embolden the opposition. For example, by insisting on bringing the internet to Syria, he made surveillance impossible at the levels his father had maintained. The security services had managed easily when snooping meant tapping phone lines and reading mail— but they just weren’t capable of covering the giant spiderweb of the internet. The web also gave people access to information and enabled debate. Both factors helped spark the 2011 uprising.

The Iraq war and the power of paranoia

Assad’s shift away from reform dovetailed with a change in his personality, as he withdrew into a bubble of authoritarian power. Lesch notes this behavior has been a hallmark of Syrian leaders for decades. “The Syrian leadership since the 1950s has been a very paranoid leadership because of constant coups and counter-coups. There have been enough imperialist shenanigans to make them believe that any opposition is a conspiracy,” he says.

Lesch says he first glimpsed this alternative reality when talking to Assad shortly after his re-election in 2007. The only candidate in what was technically a referendum on his presidency, Assad waltzed to victory with 97.6% of the vote. Lesch had spent hours and hours interviewing the president while writing a book about him in 2004 and 2005, and says he got to know a “self- deprecating, unpretentious, humble guy.”

 “I remember thinking…that he had drunk the Kool-Aid of power and that he would be president for life.” But when Lesch asked him his thoughts on the sham vote that had brought him back to power, he was taken aback by the reply. “I really thought he’d say, ‘You know, it’s not a real election,’” Lesch said. “But he sat back and said, ‘The people love me; this shows they really love me.’ I remember thinking to myself at that moment that he had drunk the Kool-Aid of power and that he would be president for life.”

Assad’s paranoia, too, began to noticeably increase. “He became a psychopath, believing that if you are not with me, you are against me, and you should be killed,” says Abdel Nour. Assad’s fears were only heightened by the Iraq war and US president George W. Bush’s rhetoric of “democracy promotion” and “regime change.” Dictators throughout the region saw their fears of external enemies validated.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) welcomes Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi at the opening of the two-day Arab Summit in Damascus March 29, 2008. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi (SYRIA) - RTR1YVGU
Assad greets Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, a fellow dictator imperiled by Bush’s democracy promotion. (Jamal Saidi/Reuters)

Assad’s tough talk regarding the Anglo-American invasion further soured his relations with the US, which had been fraught ever since Bush widened the “axis of evil” in 2002 to include Syria, Cuba, and Libya. Then came a more direct attack: In December 2003, Bush placed sanctions on Syria over its decades-long occupation of Lebanon and backing of terrorist groups.

Assad initially refused to withdraw his troops from Lebanon. But after being accused of ordering the murder of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, he bowed to the international pressure and pulled out. The capitulation stung and “fed the feeling that [Assad] is insecure, and that he can’t handle these regional or international crises,” says Ziadeh.

An insecure dictator playing with fire

By the time journalist Reese Erlich interviewed Assad in 2006, he found an insecure dictator, obsessed with the conceit that his people loved him and reforms were not needed. The forces that would shape the 2011 civil war were becoming clearer. And yet, Assad refused to address prominent issues like the possibility of free elections or opposition parties, whether Syria should grant citizenship to its hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds, or how to deal with the country’s rampant inequality.

“He basically brushed off all these things as either unimportant or plots from the West,” says Erlich, whose book Inside Syria documents the dynamics that led to the civil war.

 “…when I turned the mic to him he would suddenly jump.” Paranoia marked those interviews too. Assad became jittery at the sight of Erlich’s radio microphone, which ever so slightly resembles a gun. “The security people had checked it so they knew it wasn’t a weapon,” Erlich said. “But he got all nervous… I would point the microphone at my own mouth when I spoke and then when I turned the mic to him he would suddenly jump.”

In public, however, Assad was defiant. In 2010, despite his promises to help constrain the Lebanon-based militant Islamist party Hezbollah, the US received clear intelligence that Assad’s government had given it Scud missiles. When John Kerry, later US secretary of State but then a senior senator, confronted Assad with this discovery, the Syrian president was unflustered, Tabler says: “At first, Assad denied that they are Scud missiles, and then he said, ‘No, no, these are [fake] Israeli films.’”

For Tabler, this episode highlights Assad’s duplicity, his nefarious priorities, and his relationships with nations like Iran and Russia. Iran’s support and strategic backing of Hezbollah enabled Assad to openly lie to Kerry, just as Russia’s political and military assistance continues to give him cover to use chemical weapons.

The other effect of the Iraq war was increasing sectarianism and the spread of radical Islamism across the region. According to Tabler, Assad contributed to this increase by “allowing jihadists into the country through Damascus airport to go and fight US forces in Iraq.”

But like his economic policies, this decision, too, would eventually hurt him. By the end of the Iraq war, large groups of the disenfranchised, radical Sunnis he had let in were based in the east of the country—Syria’s poorest region. They would eventually become recruits for ISIL. Meanwhile, Assad’s power relied in part on the support of Christians and other minorities, along with Sunni urban elites. As a member of the minority Alawite sect in a country with a heavy Sunni majority, Assad’s meddling was playing with fire.

From father of the people to executioner

Syrians attend an anti-Bashar Assad protest after Friday prayers on the outskirts of Idlib, Syria, Friday, June 8, 2012. (AP Photo)
Anti-Assad protestors on the outskirts of Idlib, 2012. (AP Photo)

The 2011 revolution crystallized Assad’s psychological and political decline. When protesters took to the streets—at first calling not for regime change, but for political reforms—his reaction was a telling one.

 “The West looks at this like he’s killing his own countrymen and unfortunately he doesn’t see it this way.” Assad “demonize[d] his opponents as Saudi terrorists who are bringing Islamic fascism to Syria,” Landis said. His narrative was that these were not Syrians, but foreign forces seeking to undermine one of the last bastions of pan-Arab secularism. “He began to see this as an existential struggle and that these people who were fighting against him were foreign terrorists—and he believed his own rhetoric,” Landis said. “The West looks at this like he’s killing his own countrymen and unfortunately he doesn’t see it this way.”

Once you’ve persuaded yourself of this falsehood, Lesch says, fighting an existential threat can justify terrible means. Assad’s forces “don’t have the resources to go town to town to retake them from the opposition,” Lesch says, “so they need to use the asymmetric methods [like chemical weapons] to brutalize them.”

Another view, from dissidents like Ziadeh and Abdel Nour, is that Assad didn’t justify his slaughter by “othering” the rebels. Instead, he was invoking something akin to medieval Western monarchs’ belief in the “divine right of kings.” “Like his father, he always believed that he had the right to do whatever he wants to his own people; to kill them, torture them, disappear them: ‘They are my own people and that’s the sovereignty that I have,’” explains Ziadeh. Assad, he says, sees himself as a father punishing his errant sons. “The father is allowed to do whatever when the sons make mistakes. He doesn’t understand that this is a social contract between the Syrians and elected officials.”

 “The real test comes when your authority is really challenged.” Abdel Nour agrees: “His brain doesn’t keep him up at night telling him not to do these terrible things because he thinks he’s the representative of God; that people who are against him are sinning against God,” he said.

The question of what turns a man into a monster is never an easy one. For Assad, it’s possible the seeds of brutality were planted very early on, lying dormant but ready to emerge when the time was right. Or perhaps he simply succumbed to a system that for decades had existed with the principle goal of keeping hold of power. Certainly, after 2011 there would be no turning back.

As Houry points out, a leader’s true colors come out when their regime is under threat. “Gaddafi did not start out as a crazy man, he ended up that way,” he says. “The real test comes when your authority is really challenged, and Assad’s authority was never challenged before 2011.” When the challenge came, Assad met it, in the eyes of hawks like Tabler, by being “more brutal on his own people than Saddam or Gadaffi ever did.”

Russia (Putin) is Defending itself not Assad

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Russia is Defending itself not Assad

Yesterday, we discussed Bashar al-Assad’s trouble following the US strike and his denial of the town of Khan Shaykhoun chemical attack by saying it was 100% fabricated.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the reports indicating there is a chemical attack in the town are fake. Lavrov’s statements came during a press conference in Moscow on Friday held jointly with the Assad’ regime FM and the Iranian FM.

Are Lavrov and Assad on the same page? Is Lavrov defending Assad? They may share the same understanding but surely the motives are different. It seems that Lavrov is not defending Damascus’ criminal as much as he is protecting Russia which vowed in 2013 to remove Assad’s chemical arsenal after using it against Syrians.

Moscow took that pledge so that Assad can evade crossing the red lines set by former US President Barack Obama who was lenient towards Assad’s crime and cast a blind eye as part of a Russian debunked trick.

Things are different today, precisely after the US strike. Russia can no longer be the honest mediator after Assad used chemical weapons once again. One can’t rely on the credibility of Russia in Syria.

It is astounding that Russia, Iran and Assad’s regime, are demanding via Lavrov a thorough and honest investigation into the chemical attack in Idlib.

It is “astounding” because Russia itself had used the veto for the 8th time during the security council’s session on Wednesday to protect Assad from being condemned for using the toxic gas and thus pressuring Assad to cooperate with an international investigation into that incident!

It is also “astounding” since Assad himself had told AFP: “Syria would only allow an impartial investigation into the poison gas incident involving unbiased countries in order to make sure that they won’t use it for politicized purposes.”

He added that during the days that followed the attack, they discussed with Russia the possibility of an international investigation.

So, who should do such an investigation? How can it be international without being under the umbrella of an international organization of the UN? Is it that they want Russia to do the investigation and thus repeat the charade of Arab observers in Syria?

This is quite strange and it gives away the fact that Russia is not defending Assad as much as it is trying to protect its credibility. That is why Moscow hindered the UN project and demanded a new definition of “impartial” investigation and outside the UN monitoring.

Russia is doing this to protect its credibility that was tampered by Assad, which is his game. By game here we mean lying. But who believes Moscow now?

Is using chemical weapons any different that explosive barrels? Or killing Syrians with Russian-Iranian weapons?

Tariq Alhomayed

Tariq Alhomayed

Tariq Alhomayed is the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. Mr. Alhomyed has been a guest analyst and commentator on numerous news and current affair programs, and during his distinguished career has held numerous positions at Asharq Al-Awsat, amongst other newspapers. Notably, he was the first journalist to interview Osama Bin Ladin’s mother. Mr. Alhomayed holds a bachelor’s degree in media studies from King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. He is based in London.

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Aleppo Syria: Car Bomb Kills Dozens Of Shiite Waiting Outside Buses Trying To Evacuate

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

By John Davison | BEIRUT

A bomb blast hit a bus convoy waiting to cross into government-held Aleppo in Syria on Saturday, killing and wounding dozens of people evacuated from two Shi’ite villages the day before in a deal between warring sides.

The agreement had stalled, leaving thousands of people from both government-besieged and rebel-besieged areas stranded at two transit points on the city’s outskirts, before the explosion occurred.

Pro-Damascus media outlets said a suicide attacker detonated a car bomb and killed at least 22 people. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll was at least 24.

Footage on state TV showed bodies lying next to charred buses with their windows blown out, and vehicles in flames.

The blast hit buses in the Rashidin area on Aleppo’s outskirts. The vehicles had been waiting since Friday to cross from rebel-held territory into the government-controlled city itself.

The convoy was carrying residents and pro-government fighters from the rebel-besieged Shi’ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in nearby Idlib province.

They had left under a deal where, in exchange, hundreds of Sunni insurgents and their families were granted safe passage from Madaya, a government-besieged town near Damascus.

But a delay in the agreement had left all those evacuated stuck at transit points on Aleppo’s outskirts since late on Friday.

Residents of al-Foua and Kefraya were waiting in the Rashidin area.

The rebels and residents of Madaya, near Damascus, were waiting at the government-held Ramousah bus garage, a few miles away. They were to be transported to the opposition stronghold of Idlib province.

Still image shows a cloud of black smoke rising from vehicles in the distance in what is said to be Aleppo’s outskirts, Syria April 15, 2017. Social Media Website via Reuters TV

People waiting in the Ramousah garage heard the blast, and said they feared revenge attacks by pro-government forces. They circulated a statement on social media imploring “international organizations” to intervene so the situation did not escalate.

The evacuation deal is one of several over recent months that has seen President Bashar al-Assad’s government take back control of areas long besieged by his forces and their allies.

The deals are unpopular with the Syrian opposition, who say they amount to forced displacement of Assad’s opponents from Syria’s main urban centers in the west of the country.

They are also causing demographic changes because those who are displaced are usually Sunni Muslims, like most of the opposition. Assad is from the minority Alawite sect and is supported by Shi’ite regional allies.

It was unclear who carried out Saturday’s bombing attack.

The exact reasons for the delay in completing the evacuation deal were also unclear.

The Observatory said the delay was caused by the fact that rebels from Zabadani, another town near Damascus included in the deal, had not yet been granted safe passage out.

‘FORCED DISPLACEMENT’

A pro-opposition activist said insurgents blamed the delay partly on the fact that a smaller number of pro-government fighters had left the Shi’ite villages than was agreed.

Earlier on Saturday, at the transit point where the buses from al-Foua and Kefraya were waiting, one resident said he was not yet sure where he would live.

“After Aleppo I’ll see what the rest of the group is doing, if there are any preparations. My house, land and belongings are all in al-Foua,” Mehdi Tahhan said.

A Madaya resident, speaking from the bus garage inside Aleppo, said people had been waiting there since late on Friday, and were not being allowed to leave.

“There’s no drinking water or food. The bus garage is small so there’s not much space to move around,” Ahmed, 24, said.

“We’re sad and angry about what has happened,” he said. Many people felt that they had been forced to leave,” he said.

“There was no other choice in the end – we were besieged inside a small area in Madaya.”

Other evacuation deals in recent months have included areas of Aleppo and a district in the city of Homs.

Syria’s population is mostly Sunni. Assad’s Alawite religious minority is often considered an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

He has been backed militarily by Russia, and by Shi’ite fighters from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group in Syria’s six-year-old conflict.

Assad has the military advantage over rebels in the west thanks to Russia’s intervention in 2015, although the insurgents are still fighting back and have made gains in some areas.

(Editing by Andrew Bolton)

Russia’s President Putin Cautions Iran and Syria’s Assad

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS PAPER ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Putin Cautions Iran and Assad

When asked by a reporter if he expected more US missile strikes on Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin replied: “We have information that a similar provocation is being prepared … in other parts of Syria, including in the southern Damascus suburbs where they are planning to again plant some substance and accuse the Syrian authorities of using (chemical weapons).”

According to Reuters, Putin said Russia would be urgently asking the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the global chemical weapons watchdog, to investigate the incident in Idlib.

Putin said that he realized that Russia will receive criticism for its role in Syria, but he hoped that eventually positions will be eased.

So, what do these statements mean with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson due to arrive at Moscow for direct talks?

Surely, no one in his right mind would believe that the US is “planning to plant some substance and accuse the Syrian authorities of using (chemical weapons).”

As Putin said, if the US wanted to strike Damascus criminal Bashar al-Assad, there are simply several and logical justifications for it. This has been the case since the presidency of Obama and the US does not need to wait for Assad to use chemical weapons to launch strikes.

Therefore, the only reasonable analysis of Putin’s statement is that he is warning Assad and Iran against doing anything that could lead to more US strikes against the regime which would embarrass Russia, who will in turn not take any action that could lead to a military confrontation with the US.

No matter what Russia’s interest in Syria may be, Moscow will not go all the way to defend Assad because its real interests are in Europe. It has now become evident that President Trump is not the ally Russia was hoping for, but he is rather the president who launched a military strike against Assad.

The Russian president sought to assure the West that his country welcomes criticism of its role in Syria because he wants to convince the West that he is still in the political game. In addition, Russia’s position in Syria is not ideological or a matter of life and death, like it is with Iran and the terrorist “Hezbollah” organization, but it is negotiable.

As it stands, Putin will not allow any more embarrassments in Syria. We say “embarrassment” because Russia did not respond militarily to the Turkish downing of the Russian fighter jet, so how will it respond to US strikes against Assad after he used chemical weapons which Moscow pledged to remove in 2013?

Russia is in a tight spot and that is why Putin’s statement is more of a warning to Iran and Assad against doing anything reckless than being an accusation against the US. If Washington is colluding like that, it is better if Moscow halts the negotiations or not be so eager to welcome the Secretary of State.

It seems that Putin’s announcement is directed at Iran and Assad more than it is at the US.

Tariq Alhomayed

Tariq Alhomayed

Tariq Alhomayed is the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. Mr. Alhomyed has been a guest analyst and commentator on numerous news and current affair programs, and during his distinguished career has held numerous positions at Asharq Al-Awsat, amongst other newspapers. Notably, he was the first journalist to interview Osama Bin Ladin’s mother. Mr. Alhomayed holds a bachelor’s degree in media studies from King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. He is based in London.

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Migrants in Turkey pray for return to Syria, work farms to survive

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS)

Migrants in Turkey pray for return to Syria, work farms to survive

By Tuvan Gumrukcu | REYHANLI, TURKEY

Ahmad Mustafa fled northern Syria to Turkey four months ago, badly injuring his hand along the way.

But while the free healthcare he gets as a refugee is helping him heal, Mustafa and many of the nearly 3 million Syrian migrants who have fled to Turkey are gradually losing hope for their war-ravaged homeland.

“We have no hope for Syria at this stage. Russia, Iran, and the United States are all hitting us from different sides,” Mustafa said, his right arm still in a sling.

“Our hope is that God will change things,” he said, speaking through a translator.

Mustafa is part of what Ankara says is the world’s largest refugee population, many of whom barely eke out a living in places like Reyhanli, a dusty border town in the southern Hatay province that teems with Syrian refugees and where some signs in shop windows are printed in both Arabic and Turkish.

Ankara has also set up refugee camps on the Syrian side of the border and the Turkish Red Crescent estimates it is providing aid to around 5 million people inside Syria.

But while a U.S. missile strike against a Syrian government air base this week may have kindled some optimism that Washington could step up pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, nobody in Reyhanli expects to be able to go home soon.

“They are hitting us from the air, killing civilians in cities,” said Samial Dude, a former truck driver from the area around rebel-held Idlib, who also now lives in Hatay.

“We don’t have guns. We don’t even know who’s bombing us, we are just being bombed. Even animals are treated as more important than Syrian people,” he said.

The United States fired missiles at a Syrian air base on Friday in retaliation for a chemical attack that killed 87 people, including children, in the northwest Idlib province.

Both Washington and Ankara blame the Syrian government for the poison gas attack, but Damascus has denied responsibility.

Six years of civil war have killed an estimated half a million people and set new standards of savagery for civilians, with half of Syria’s population uprooted in the world’s biggest refugee crisis.

SEASONAL LABOR

In Turkey, where Ankara provides the migrants with some aid, many work as seasonal laborers on farms to survive.

“I have been paying rent for six years and all my earnings go to pay it off,” said Mohammad Hammadi, adding that he spends much of his time working with an aid organization to help migrants who are even worse off than he is.

President Tayyip Erdogan, long one of Assad’s most vocal critics, is popular with the migrants in Hatay, who say he opened Turkey’s borders to them when leaders in the Arab world did not. Erdogan has called on the West should do more to help Turkey shoulder the humanitarian burden.

Turks will go to the polls on April 16 for a referendum on whether to change the constitution and give Erdogan sweeping presidential powers. Although they will not be able to vote, some Syrians migrants hope that Erdogan does secure more power.

“Of course we want Erdogan to become stronger, maybe then he can help us more. Maybe then he can build homes for us here,” said Gaceel al Awaad, who earns about 30 lira ($8) a day working in fields, almost all of which goes to pay rent.

“We just pray to God that we can return as soon as possible. This is the only concern for Syrians in Turkey.”

(Writing by David Dolan; editing by Alexander Smith)

U.S. Missile Attack On Syrian Shayrat Airfield Was Significant But Insufficient

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Shayrat Attack… Significant but Insufficient

Last week’s morning was a turning point in the US dealing with the Syrian crisis. When 59 missiles Tomahawk were launched towards Shayrat airport, this was the first direct attack by the |United States on Bashar Al-Assad regime since the beginning of the revolution six years ago.

The attack has stopped a US clinical sleep towards complications of a war that has resulted in the worst humanitarian crisis in recent history. Surely, speaking about whether the US has started practically correcting its stance is early. This might be a sole step and reaction for a massacre that was one among many committed by Assad’s regime – but it is at least a sign that the world is facing a new US administration that has done in less than four months what has not been done by the former administration in eight years.

The attack on Shayrat airbase, although it was surprising and important, is a small step in changing the field condition and ending the Syrian tragedy. Maybe, if the attack happened when Barack Obama threatened with the “red line” in 2013 and before the Russian military intervention then its influence might have been bigger – it might have contributed to supporting the opposition and putting huge pressure on Assad’s regime.

One strike will not change the horrible way Assad treats civilians and will not affect his power, even if it prevents him from using chemical weapons soon. Nonetheless, Washington believes that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapon in Khan Sheikhoun massacre and, thus, it should be punished.

During the Iranian-Iraqi war, the US supported Iraq against Iran, but soon after that it turned against Saddam Hussein regime after it used chemical weapons in Kurdistan. Also, Shayrat attack might be viewed as a warning to Moscow that their might be consequences for the acts of its ally, Assad.

Russians deceived the international community in 2013 agreement that admitted Assad has submitted his ammunition of chemical weapons, although Moscow knew that Assad kept some storage that was used later on without facing any real consequences by the international community.

Throughout the past years, the regime has carried out airstrikes that killed hundred thousands of innocent Syrians – it used the tactics of starving and bombing hospitals as well as chemical attacks. Despite that, Assad did not face any real consequences, not even once, for his barbarism. However, this time, the Trump administration saw that it has to destroy one of Assad’s airbases to prevent warplanes from striking innocent people and dropping Sarin gas on them.

It is true that the US attack is a huge symbolic step but it will be considered a limited tactic if compared to the facts on ground. If Trump’s slogan was “America first” then this does not necessarily mean acting indifferently towards the world matters but means that America stays strong and leads the world.

The US is not Switzerland to act impartially towards international conflicts and 50 Tomahawk missiles alone will not trigger a huge change. If the US chooses the relatively low-cost option represented in limited military response such as Cruise missiles, then it can also take an international efficient step against Assad’s regime through exerting pressure to implement the international resolutions – establishing safe zones.

As much as striking Shayrat airbase has achieved several goals, its influence will be limited with time if it remained a sole step and not a new strategy. Six years of war have proven that only Russia, Iran and “Hezbollah” are messing in the Syrian territories to support a practically collapsed regime.

The military strike at Assad’s regime might be a first step towards regaining respect to the international resolutions and pushing the international community, US in the lead, to play its role in putting an end to the Syrian tragedy.

Salman Al-dossary

Salman Al-dossary

Salman Aldosary is the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

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Sadr becomes first Iraqi Shi’ite leader to urge Assad to step down

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

Sadr becomes first Iraqi Shi’ite leader to urge Assad to step down

Iraq’s influential Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to “take a historic heroic decision” and step down, to spare his country further bloodshed.

Sadr, who commands a large following among the urban poor of Baghdad and the southern cities, is the first Iraqi Shi’ite political leader to urge Assad to step down.

But his call was wrapped in kind words about the Syrian president and condemnation of the U.S. strikes carried out on a Syrian airbase on Friday, in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians in a rebel-held area of Syria.

Sadr said the U.S. strikes would “drag the region to war” and could help “the expansion of Daesh,” the militant Islamic State group, which controls parts of Iraq and Syria.

Iraq’s Shi’ite-led governments have maintained good relations with the Syrian government throughout the six-year Syrian civil war. Sadr is the only Iraqi Shi’ite leader to keep some distance from Iran, a main backer of Assad along with Russia.

“I think it would be fair for President Bashar al-Assad to offer his resignation and step down in love for Syria, to spare it the woes of war and terrorism …and take a historic, heroic decision before it is too late,” Sadr said in a statement.

The Shi’ite-led Iraqi government issued a statement on Friday that reflected the difficult balancing act it maintains between its alliance with the United States and with Shi’ite Iran. It condemned the chemical attack, without naming Assad, calling instead for an international investigation to identify the perpetrator.

The statement also criticized “the hasty interventions” that followed the chemical attack, in an apparent reference to the U.S. strikes.

A U.S.-led coalition has been providing air and ground support to Iraqi forces battling Islamic State, allowing them to recapture most of the cities they had overrun in 2014 in Sunni areas of northern and western Iraq.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli, editing by Larry King)

The Emerging Trump Doctrine: Don’t Follow Doctrine

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

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The damage on Friday after a reported airstrike by the Syrian government in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus. CreditAbd Doumany/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

WASHINGTON — As he confronted a series of international challenges from the Middle East to Asia last week, President Trump made certain that nothing was certain about his foreign policy. To the extent that a Trump Doctrine is emerging, it seems to be this: don’t get roped in by doctrine.

In a week in which he hosted foreign heads of state and launched a cruise missile strike against Syria’s government, Mr. Trump dispensed with his own dogma and forced other world leaders to re-examine their assumptions about how the United States will lead in this new era. He demonstrated a highly improvisational and situational approach that could inject a risky unpredictability into relations with potential antagonists, but also opened the door to a more traditional American engagement with the world that eases allies’ fears.

As a private citizen and candidate, Mr. Trump spent years arguing that Syria’s civil war was not America’s problem, that Russia should be a friend, and that China was an “enemy” whose leaders should not be invited to dinner. As president, Mr. Trump, in the space of just days, involved America more directly in the Syrian morass than ever before, opened a new acrimonious rift with Russia, and invited China’s leader for a largely convivial, let’s-get-along dinner at his Florida estate.

In the process, Mr. Trump upended domestic politics as well. He rejected the nationalist wing of his own White House, led by Stephen K. Bannon, his chief strategist, who opposes entanglement in Middle East conflicts beyond fighting terrorism and favors punitive trade measures against Beijing. And Mr. Trump, by launching the strike on Russia’s ally Syria, undercut critics who have portrayed him as a Manchurian candidate doing the bidding of President Vladimir V. Putin after the Kremlin intervened in last year’s election on his behalf.

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Given his unpredictability, none of this means that Mr. Trump has pivoted permanently in any of these areas. The White House has prepared an executive order that the president may sign in coming days targeting countries like China that dump steel in the American market. And Mr. Trump is sending Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson on Tuesday to Moscow, where he will have the additional task of trying to smooth over the rancor of recent days, in addition to exploring whether Russia could be a real partner in battling the Islamic State in Syria.

Moreover, the missile strike, in response to a chemical weapons attack, was intended to be a limited, one-time operation, and the president seemed determined to quickly move on. After announcing the attack Thursday evening, he made no mention of it Friday during public appearances, nor on Saturday during his weekly address. As of Saturday morning, the Twitter-obssessed president had not even taunted President Bashar al-Assad of Syria online, although he did thank the American troops who carried out the missile strike.

“Our decisions,” Mr. Trump said in the Saturday address, “will be guided by our values and our goals — and we will reject the path of inflexible ideology that too often leads to unintended consequences.”

That concept, flexibility, seems key to understanding Mr. Trump. He hates to be boxed in, as he mused in the Rose Garden last week while contemplating the first new military operation of his presidency with geopolitical consequences.

“I like to think of myself as a very flexible person,” he told reporters. “I don’t have to have one specific way.” He made clear he cherished unpredictability. “I don’t like to say where I’m going and what I’m doing,” he said.

That flexibility was a hallmark of his rise in real estate, and if critics preferred the word erratic, it did not bother Mr. Trump — it has since worked well enough to vault him to the White House. But now that he is commander in chief of the world’s most powerful nation, leaders around the world are trying to detect a method to the man.

“There is no emerging doctrine for Trump foreign policy in a classical sense,” said Kathleen H. Hicks, a former Pentagon official who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There are, however, clear emerging characteristics consistent with the attributes of the man himself: unpredictable, instinctual and undisciplined.”

On Syria, Mr. Trump had mocked President Barack Obama for setting a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and urged him not to launch a punitive strike against Syria after Mr. Assad crossed it in 2013. That attack, with a death toll of 1,400, dwarfed last week’s toll of 84. And just days before last week’s attack, Mr. Tillerson indicated that Washington would accept Mr. Assad’s remaining in power.

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An injured child being treated after the strike. CreditAbd Doumany/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Indeed, critics, including Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, argued that Mr. Assad felt free to launch a chemical attack precisely because Mr. Trump’s administration had given him a green light. Russia, critics added, did not constrain Mr. Assad because it has had a blank check from an overly friendly Trump administration. And Mr. Trump’s efforts to bar Syrian refugees from the United States, they said, sent a signal that he did not care about them.

“President Trump seems not to have thought through any of this, or have any kind of broader strategy, but rather to have launched a military strike based on a sudden, emotional decision,” Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, wrote in an article for The Huffington Post on Saturday.

Mr. Assad is not the only leader testing Mr. Trump. North Korea has test-launched missile after missile in recent weeks, almost as if trying to get Mr. Trump’s attention. So far, he has been measured in his response, urging President Xi Jinping of China during his visit at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida to do more to rein in North Korea. But national security aides have also prepared options for Mr. Trump if China does not take a more assertive stance, including reintroducing nuclear weapons in South Korea.

Mr. Trump’s action in Syria was welcomed by many traditional American allies who had fretted over Mr. Obama’s reluctance to take a greater leadership role in the Middle East, and feared that Mr. Trump would withdraw even more. After the missile strike, Israeli news outlets were filled with headlines like “The Americans Are Back,” and European leaders expressed relief both that he took action and that he did not go too far.

“We have learned that Trump is not so isolationist as many Europeans feared he would be — he appears to care about victims of a gas attack in Syria,” said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform in London. “We have learned that he understands that U.S. influence had suffered from the perception — which grew under Obama — that it was a power weakened by its reluctance to use force.”

That touches on another animating factor as Mr. Trump deals with foreign challenges — doing the opposite of whatever Mr. Obama did. Mr. Trump’s first instinct after the Syrian chemical attack was to blame Mr. Obama for not enforcing his red line, never mind that Mr. Trump had urged him not to at the time. Even as he announced the missile strike on Thursday night, Mr. Trump asserted that his predecessor’s handling of Syria had “failed very dramatically.”

Intentionally or not, though, Mr. Trump adopted language similar to that used by Mr. Obama and many other presidents in defining American priorities. While in the past Mr. Trump said the United States did not have a national interest in Syria, last week he said instability there was “threatening the United States and its allies.”

He also said that “America stands for justice,” effectively espousing a responsibility to act in cases of human rights abuses, as other presidents have at times.

Until now, Mr. Trump has largely eschewed such language. Just three days earlier, he had hosted Egypt’s authoritarian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and made no public mention of the thousands of people the Cairo government has imprisoned in a political crackdown.

“What is striking to me is a subtle yet clear shift away from the rhetoric of pure American self-interest narrowly defined, as espoused by candidate Donald Trump,” said Robert Danin, a former Middle East negotiator who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “What has emerged is a new language of American leadership in the world that we have not heard before from President Trump.”

Mr. Grant and others noted that the strike, coming as Mr. Trump shared a meal with Mr. Xi, could resonate in Asia as well, leaving North Korea to wonder whether the president might resort to force to stop its development of ballistic missiles.

But Ms. Hicks said Mr. Trump’s flexibility — or unpredictability — was itself “extremely risky.” If other countries cannot accurately predict what an American president will do, she said, they may act precipitously, citing the example of China’s extending its maritime claims in the South China Sea.

“Imagine if Donald Trump then took exception in ways they didn’t anticipate and major wars ensued,” she said. “Bright lines, derived from clear interests and enforced well, are generally best, and I don’t think Donald Trump likes to be constrained by bright lines.”

With Strike Aimed at Halting More Gas Attacks, U.S. Tries to Send Syrians Message

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

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A satellite image of the damage assessment of Al Shayrat airfield in Syria after an American missile attack. Credit U.S. Department of Defense

WASHINGTON — The American cruise-missile strike that destroyed at least 20 warplanes in Syria on Friday was devised by American war planners as a one-time operation to deter President Bashar al-Assad from using his secret stockpile of chemicals ever again.

Military officials said it was never intended to be the leading edge of a broader campaign to dislodge Mr. Assad from power, or force a political settlement in a country that has been ripped apart by six years of a bloody civil war.

The question for the Pentagon, however, is whether this 21st-century equivalent of a shot across the bow will ensure that poisonous gas will no longer be among the many scourges that plague Syria, or whether it will gradually draw the United States in a multisided military tug of war over the future of the Syrian state.

If there is one description that summed up the plan, which was developed at the headquarters of the United States Central Command in Tampa, Fla., it is “proportional.” Details of the plan were described to reporters at a briefing on Friday by senior military officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with Pentagon protocol.

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The Americans wanted to send a specific signal by striking only the airfield that a Syrian Su-22 warplane had used for its mission on Tuesday to drop a chemical bomb in the middle of the town of Khan Sheikhoun, in southern Idlib Province.

Before the American attack could go forward, however, American intelligence officials had to satisfy senior commanders — and, presumably, President Trump — that it had the culprit. The evidence was abundant, and American intelligence analysts concluded they had “high confidence” in their assessments.

The Americans had tracked the Syrian jet as it took off from the Al Shayrat airfield and dropped a bomb in the middle of a street. The time of the chemical attack, just before 7 a.m., correlated with reports that residents were exhibiting signs of having been subjected to nerve agent. The crater from the bomb showed staining that experts associated with a shell filled with chemical agents.

American intelligence officials also suspect that an attempt might have been made to frustrate efforts to gather evidence of a chemical assault. After victims were rushed to a hospital, a small drone appeared overhead before disappearing. About five hours later, the drone returned and another airstrike hit the medical center; American officials do not know if the drone or the second strike was launched by Syria or Russia.

The shifting fortunes on the battlefield may explain why the Assad government mounted its largest chemical weapons attack since August 2013. In recent weeks, rebel forces have pushed to connect the areas they controlled in Hama and Idlib Provinces. The Syrian government’s control of the Hama airfield was at risk; it was being used by the Assad government as a helicopter base and, it is suspected, as a factory for some of the barrel bombs Syria’s forces had used to deadly effect.

American military officials say they do not believe the strike on Tuesday, which they said was carried out with a nerve agent, was necessarily unique. On March 30, panicky Syrian forces may have used a similar nerve agent in Hama Province, though American officials said they lacked forensic evidence to prove it. On March 25, the Syrians also mounted an attack using chlorine; its use in war is illegal under an international convention banning chemical weapons.

Having concluded that chemical weapons were used by Syrian forces, the next challenge for the Trump administration was to settle on a response. The military options were developed on Wednesday, and when they were narrowed down, the Al Shayrat airfield was in the cross hairs.

Equipped with bunkers for storing chemical munitions, the airfield had been built as a potential launching pad for attacks with chemical weapons — weapons that Mr. Assad was supposed to have given up as part of an agreement that was worked out by the United States and Russia.

Surveying the airfield, American war planners developed a list of 59 targets: aircraft, hardened plane shelters, radars, an air defense system, ammunition bunkers and petroleum storage sites. One Tomahawk cruise missile was fired at each of the 59 targets, and the Pentagon asserted that each hit its mark. An additional missile aborted after launch and fell into the Mediterranean.

One American official who spoke separately from the briefing estimated that 20 to 25 Syrian warplanes were destroyed in the attack, at 3:40 a.m. local time, four hours after President Trump’s order to go ahead was relayed to the Central Command. The runway was not a target.

The strike was aimed at avoiding the 12 to 100 Russian pilots, maintenance and other military personnel who manned a helicopter unit at different parts of the base, and to avoid striking Russian aircraft. American officials said they had no independent information on possible casualties but were confident that Russians were not among them.

The presence of the Russians is just one factor that is leading American intelligence officials to investigate if Moscow was complicit, disinterested or ignorant of the Syrian government’s use of a covert chemical arsenal.

As long as Syrian forces do not use chemical weapons again, American officials have signaled that Mr. Trump’s first use of force against Mr. Assad’s military is likely to have been a shot heard around the world — but also a riposte that will not be repeated.

Limiting the effect of even a narrow operation, however, may be difficult. One potential danger is that Shiite militias backed by Iran, including Shiite fighters in Iraq, might try to retaliate against American troops.

Another is that Russian and American relations may deteriorate to the point that the procedures the two nations use to notify each other about air operations in Syria will be suspended, raising the risk of an inadvertent confrontation.

A more fundamental question is whether the Trump administration will now pursue a diplomatic strategy to quell the fighting in Syria, which has attracted thousands of militants, including many of the volunteers who have joined the Islamic State.

Cliff Kupchan and Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, predicted that Mr. Assad would avoid a direct confrontation with the United States in the near term, calculating that he has enough aircraft, barrel bombs, missiles and troops to continue his fight against the rebels without resorting to poison gas.

Mr. Assad and his aides, they wrote in an assessment, “will probably steer away from any escalation that would lead the international community to recommit itself to a regime change policy.”

Mr. Trump’s intervention against the Assad government may be over for now, but the Syrian war appears certain to go on.

U.S. Navy Launches Apx 50 Cruise Missiles At Military Airfield In Syria

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

April 6 at 9:38 PM
The U.S. military launched approximately 50 cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield late on Thursday, in the first direct American assault on the government of President Bashar al-Assad since that country’s civil war began six years ago.The operation, which the Trump administration authorized in retaliation for a chemical attack killing scores of civilians this week, dramatically expands U.S. military involvement in Syria and exposes the United States to heightened risk of direct confrontation with Russia and Iran, both backing Assad in his attempt to crush his opposition.

The missiles were launched from two Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean. They targeted an airbase called Shayrat in Homs province, which is the site from which the planes that conducted the chemical attack in Idlib are believed to have originated.

In comparison, the start of the Iraq war in 2003 saw the use of roughly 500 cruise missiles and 47 were fired at the opening of the anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria in 2014.

The attack may put hundreds of American troops now stationed in Syria in greater danger. They are advising local forces in advance of a major assault on the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital.

Tillerson: ‘Assad’s role in the future is uncertain’

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Speaking from Palm Beach, Fla., Secretary of State Rex Tillerson placed the blame for a chemical attack that killed dozens of Syrian civilians squarely on the regime of the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad. (Reuters)

The decision to strike follows 48 hours of intense deliberations by U.S. officials, and represents a significant break with the previous administration’s reluctance to wade militarily into the Syrian civil war and shift any focus from the campaign against the Islamic State.

Senior White House officials met on the issue of Syria Wednesday evening in a session that lasted into early Thursday, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, have communicated repeatedly since Tuesday’s chemical attack, the officials said.

The U.S. Central Command has had plans for striking the Syrian government for years and currently has significant assets in the region, enabling a quick response once a decision was made.

While the Obama White House began operations against the Islamic State in 2014, it backed away from a planned assault on Syrian government sites a year earlier after a similar chemical attack on Syrian civilians.

Tuesday’s apparent nerve gas attack in northern Idlib, with its widely circulated images of lifeless children, appears to have galvanized President Trump and some of his top advisers to harden their position against the Syrian leader.

The assault adds new complexity to Syria’s prolonged conflict, which includes fighters battling the Syrian government and others focused on combatting the Islamic State, which despite over two years of American and allied attacks remains a potent force.

Within the administration, some officials urged immediate action against Assad, warning against what one described as “paralysis through analysis.” But others were concerned about second- and third-order effects, including the response of Russia, which also has installed sophisticated air-defense systems in Syria, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The Trump administration’s position on the strongman appears to have quickly shifted in the wake of the chemical attack, as senior officials voiced new criticism of the Syrian leader.

Earlier Thursday, Tillerson suggested that the United States and other nations would consider somehow removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, but he did not say how. Just a few days ago, the White House had said that removing Assad was not realistic with press secretary Sean Spicer saying it was necessary to accept the “political reality” in Syria.

“We are considering an appropriate response for this chemical weapons attack,” Tillerson said in Palm Beach, Fla., where Trump was meeting Thursday with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “It is a serious matter. It requires a serious response,” he said.

The summit with the Chinese leader will continue Friday, and some U.S. officials believe the strike will also serve as a warning of U.S. willingness to strike North Korea, if China does not act to curtail the nuclear ambitions of the government there.

It was not immediately clear whether Thursday’s assault marked the beginning of a broader campaign against the Assad government. While Thursday’s operation was the first intentional attack on Syrian government targets, the United States accidentally struck a group of Syrian soldiers in eastern Syria last year in what officials concluded was the result of human error.

The Obama administration had insisted that Assad could never remain in any postwar Syria, and it supported rebel groups that have tried unsuccessfully to oust him.

A senior State Department official said Tillerson spoke on the phone Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the chemical attack.

“We sought the Russian analysis or readout of what they thought had happened,” the official said.

It is unclear if the U.S. provided any warning to Russia about the attack on Assad’s military facilities.

The United States has a broad arsenal already in the region, including dozens of strike aircraft on the USS George H.W. Bush, an aircraft carrier that is deployed to the Middle East and accompanied by guided-missile destroyers and cruisers that can also launch Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Additionally, an amphibious naval force in the region includes the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit with Harrier jets and Cobra gunships. The Pentagon also has scores of aircraft in the region flying operations every day against the Islamic State group, including from Incirlik air base to the north in Turkey.

The attack appears to have involved only missiles. U.S. fighter planes, if used, would have had to contend with a modest web of Syrian air defenses and potentially more advanced types of surface-to-air missiles provided by Russia.

One of Assad’s more prevalent systems, the S-200, was used to target Israeli jets last month, but missiles were intercepted by Israeli defense systems. The S-200 has a range of roughly 186 miles, according to U.S. military documents, and can hit targets flying at altitudes of around 130,000 feet.

Russian S-300 and S-400 missiles, located primarily around Khmeimim air base in western Syria, have a shorter range than the S-200, but have more-advanced radar systems and fly considerably faster than their older counterparts used by Syrian forces. The S-300 has a range of roughly 90 miles and could also be used to target incoming U.S. cruise missiles.

In a joint statement, Sens. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the operation “sent an important message the United States will no longer stand idly by as Assad, aided and abetted by Putin’s Russia, slaughters innocent Syrians with chemical weapons and barrel bombs.”

They also called on the administration to take Assad’s air force out of the fight and follow “through with a new, comprehensive strategy in coordination with our allies and partners to end the conflict in Syria.”

David Nakamura in Palm Beach, Fla., and Anne Gearan, Carol Morello and David Weigel in Washington contributed to this report.