Opinion: Is Trump going neocon in Syria?

Is President Donald Trump about to intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war? For that is what he and his advisers seem to be signaling.

Last week, Trump said of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s campaign to recapture the last stronghold of the rebellion, Idlib province: “If it’s a slaughter, the world is going to get very, very angry. And the United States is going to get very angry, too.”

In a front-page story Monday, “Assad is Planning Chlorine Attack, U.S. Says,” The Wall Street Journal reports that, during a recent meeting, “President Trump threatened to conduct a massive attack against Mr. Assad if he carries out a massacre in Idlib.”

Idlib contains three million civilians and refugees and 70,000 rebels, 10,000 of whom are al-Qaida.

On Friday, The Washington Post reported that Trump is changing U.S. policy. America will not leaving Syria any time soon.

The 2,200 U.S. troops in Syria will remain until we see “the exit of all Iranian military and proxy forces and the establishment of a stable, non-threatening government acceptable to all Syrians.”

President Obama had a red line against Syria’s use of poison gas, which Trump enforced with bombing runs. Now we have a new red line.

In an editorial Friday, the Post goaded Trump, calling his response to Assad’s ruthless recapture of his country “pathetically weak.” To stand by and let the Syrian army annihilate the rebels in Idlib, said the Post, would be “another damaging abdication of U.S. leadership.”

What Trump seems to be signaling, the Post demanding, is that, rather than allow a bloody battle for the recapture of Idlib province to play out, the United States should engage Russian and Syrian forces militarily and force them to back off.

On Friday, near the U.S. garrison at Tanf in southern Syria, close to Iraq, U.S. Marines conducted a live-fire exercise. Purpose: Warn Russian forces to stay away.

What makes this more than an academic exercise is that Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, at a meeting in Tehran last Friday, told President Erdogan of Turkey that the reconquest of Idlib is going forward.

Erdogan fears that the Syrian army’s recapture of Idlib would send hundreds of thousands more refugees streaming to his border.

Yet the massing of the Syrian army near Idlib and the Russian and Syrian bombing now begun suggest that the Assad-Putin-Rouhani coalition has decided to accept the risk of a clash with the Americans in order to bring an end to the rebellion. If so, this puts the ball in America’s court.

Words and warnings aside, is Trump prepared to take us into the Syrian civil war against the forces who, absent our intervention, will have won the war?

What vital U.S. interest is imperiled in Idlib, or in ensuring that all Iranian forces and Shiite allies are removed, or that a “non-threatening government acceptable to all Syrians and the international community” is established in Damascus?

With these conditions required before our departure, we could be there for eternity.

Trump has struck Syria twice for its use of poison gas, and U.S. officials told the Journal that Assad has now approved the use of chlorine on the rebels in Idlib. Moscow, however, is charging that a false-flag operation to unleash chlorine on civilians in Idlib is being prepared to trigger and justify U.S. intervention.

Many in this Russophobic city would welcome a confrontation with Putin’s Russia, even more a U.S. war on Iran. But that is the opposite of what candidate Trump promised.

Writes for Creators Syndicate.

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