President Donald Trump said Wednesday that a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians has changed his attitude toward the country’s president and its ongoing civil war. But he refused to explain in any detail what his shift means for U.S. policy.
“I like to think of myself as a very flexible person,” Trump said at a news conference alongside King Abdullah II of Jordan. “I don’t have to have one specific way and if the world changes, I go the same way.
“I do change. And I am flexible. and I’m proud of that flexibility. And I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me. Big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that. And I have that flexibility, and it’s very, very possible, and I will tell you, it’s already happened, that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”
The comments suggest that Trump, a longtime opponent of American military involvement in the Middle East, was rethinking his position on Syria and the country’s president, Bashar Assad. But when pressed on what functionally would change with his new approach, the president remained vague, saying it was not in his interest to announce new policy in public.
“One of the things I think you’ve noticed about me is militarily, I don’t like to say where I’m going and what I’m doing,” Trump said. “I watched past administrations say, ‘We will attack at such and such a day and such and such an hour.’ … I’m not saying I’m doing anything one way or the other.”
Trump’s comments add another chapter to what can only be described as an evolving U.S. policy on Syria. Just days earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said U.S. policy was not geared toward removing Assad from power. That statement has been blamed as a de facto catalyst for the latest atrocity in Syria’s civil war. The death toll in the chemical attack reportedly topped 100.
On Wednesday morning, meanwhile, Trump’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, denounced the Assad regime’s actions. But unlike Trump, she went a step further by placing blame at the feet of the Russian government ― Assad’s main geopolitical ally.
“Time and time again, Russia uses the same false narrative to deflect attention from their allies in Damascus,” Haley said. “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”
Trump did not address Russia’s role in Syria during his press conference, but in an earlier interview with The New York Times, he called it a “very sad day for Russia because they’re aligned” with Syria.
The Obama administration, which Trump blamed for the current situation, similarly tried to browbeat Assad into ending hostilities and atrocities that have upended his country, while simultaneously trying to prevent the collapse of the regime and potential gains for ISIS.
At the time, Trump strongly encouraged Obama against direct American intervention in Syria. Now, he seems poised to escalate U.S. involvement even further.